Is it rational to fear spiders? Or snakes? Or being injected by hypodermic needles? If so, can you really say that you have a phobia of them? If being afraid of these things is perfectly natural, then surely it shouldn’t be considered a disorder to fear them. It should be considered common sense!
Rational Fear, Irrational Phobia
It’s perfectly normal to be afraid of some things. Dangerous animals, situations which can cause you harm, threats to your safety or emotional wellbeing and many other things are feared by the entire human population. Fear is useful in a lot of situations – it alerts you to potential dangers and kick-starts your fight-or-flight response by giving you a boost in energy and attention so that you are more able to deal with the threat. So a fear of snakes, for example, is perfectly justified as many snakes do pose a risk to humans. And, fearing them stops you getting too close and primes you to react if you encounter one.
However, for a fear to be considered a phobia, it has to meet certain criteria. One of these is that the fear is excessive compared to the amount of danger actually presented. So, to be considered a phobia, your fear needs to be something more severe than just a healthy awareness of the risk certain situations present.
Being terrified if you open the boot of your car and finding a rattlesnake waiting for you? That would be a sensible, understandable fear. Being petrified by a photo of a snake or anytime it is on screen while your kids are watching Disney’s The Jungle Book? Probably an irrational level of fear. The latter example would probably qualify as a phobia; the former would not.
Fear Gets us Ready, Phobias Inhibit us
It’s true that it is easier to form phobias of things which actually pose a danger. Fears of heights, or fire, or spiders, are some of the most common phobias because these things would have posed a threat to our early ancestors. So, inherently knowing to stay away from them would have been useful for survival. The same phenomenon can be observed in animals too: it is much easier to train monkeys to be afraid of snakes than flowers, because only snakes could actually pose a risk to their lives. The idea that we are mentally “prepared” to fear certain things might suggest that a phobia of them is in some way, natural or useful.
But, when you think about it, is there any situation where having an overwhelming, extreme fear could be considered useful? As we said above, fear is useful because it triggers changes in your body which get you ready for action: increased heart rate, raised blood pressure, extra energy to your muscles and so on. With most phobias, the fear response reaches such excessive levels that it can cause us to freeze up, or panic and lose control. This would very much get in the way of your ability to deal with the situation and would never be an advantage. Being afraid of dogs is useful as it means your attention will be focused on a wild dog that appears in front of you and you will have the energy to react quickly if it attacks. Being phobic of dogs will either cause you to freeze up or run for your life at the sight of a small puppy, neither of which are particularly helpful in terms of survival!
Of course, it is also perfectly possible to develop phobias of things which actually pose little or no risk to us. What’s interesting is that those suffering from these kinds of phobias can know intellectually that their fear is totally irrational, but that doesn’t stop you feeling it. You can know, objectively, that the number thirteen is just a number and doesn’t bring about bad luck or cause bad things to happen, but someone with Triskaidekaphobia will feel this fear just as strongly regardless.
This is because the fear response we’ve been talking about is designed to override conscious thinking and rational decision making. It’s designed for snap decisions in response to immediate dangers, not drawn out deliberation, so sometimes it can make incorrect assumptions or over-generalisations.
The Cure Remains the Same
Whether you suffer from a “prepared” phobia of something genuinely dangerous or a truly bizarre and irrational fear like phobia of belly buttons, the bottom line is that treatment works just the same. You can still cure a prepared phobia of snakes or fires and take away the irrational fear while leaving the healthy levels of fear intact.
So fear can be rational (sometimes) but phobias never are. If you suffer from one, then it’s time to start looking at treatment. Test yourself NOW if you have a phobia.