The Science of… Phobias

Most of us are scared of something – be it spiders, the dark, or even buttons. The NHS says, “A phobia is a constant, extreme or irrational fear of an animal, object, place or situation that would not normally worry the majority of people.” Fair enough. But what actually causes phobias?

Occasionally, it’s obvious; falling whilst climbing could result in a fear of heights. But what about things like arachnophobia? I hate spiders, but I’ve never been bitten, and I’m not likely to be – and if I am, the chances of dying are slim. So, why do I want to run whenever I see one? Well, I wasn’t always afraid. Then I realised all the girls in my class at school were – and somehow, I learnt to be.

This links with an accepted idea that sometimes, phobias can be transferred. A mother may pass fears on to her child, who observes her and learns to fear similar things. It’s also thought that long-standing stress and worry increases the likelihood of acquiring a phobia. Biological reasons such as genetic predisposition are mostly unexplored.

Can we cure phobias? There are many options. The most sensible is probably cognitive behavioural therapy, involving counseling and gently increasing, regular exposure to the fearful object or situation. Recent research at the University of Amsterdam shows that propanalol, which treats high blood pressure, could be a potential treatment.

60 volunteers were given an electric shock whilst viewing an image of a spider, until they became startled by viewing the image alone. This is ‘conditioning’ – they had become conditioned to respond fearfully to a photo of a spider. Then, the drug was administered. When the picture was shown again, the volunteers did not react. What is interesting is that even after another round of conditioning, they didn’t flinch on seeing the images, suggesting that the ‘fear’ had been permanently removed. Propanalol acts to reduce the effects of adrenaline, which is thought to intensify an unpleasant memory when it is ‘relived’. Such studies are tentative, and more work needs to be done to further understand in this mysterious topic.

Some Famous Phobias

Orlando Bloom – pigs (swinophobia)
Nicole Kidman – butterflies (lepidopterophobia)
Sigmund Freud – train travel (siderodromophobia)
Johnny Depp – clowns (clourophobia)

Aarohi Sharma


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