My heart quickens, muscles tighten and I can feel my breathing speed up way past the norm. Then I shove my glasses back on and realise the spider I thought was lurking in the corner of my bedroom is actually a screwed-up piece of black thread – and I immediately calm down. Maybe this says more about my complete lack of eyesight than anything else, but ignoring this, what I have just experienced is fear. We all know intense fear of spiders is arachnophobia – but what does this really mean? What exactly is a phobia and how is it caused?
To put it simply, fear is a form of anxiety which is triggered by an object of a situation, such as being afraid of the dark or my heart stopping moment with the fake spider. The changes in your body (racing heart, fast breathing etc.) is commonly known as the fight or flight response. Fear is an autonomic response, which means it happens unconsciously and we cannot control it; we are essentially powerless until it has run its course.
A fear becomes a phobia when you have an almost exaggerated or unrealistic sense of danger about a particular object or situation (i.e. my spider). People often begin to organise their life around avoiding the phobia that is causing them anxiety. Coming into contact with your phobia or even thinking about it can evoke symptoms, which can include feeling dizzy, nauseous or the feeling of losing control – this makes you feel even more anxious, releasing more adrenaline, and this vicious circle can lead to a full blown panic attack.
There are basically two types of phobias: simple and complex. Complex phobias are often when your fear prevents you from going about your day to day life – examples include agoraphobia, the fear of leaving home or a ‘safe area’. Simple phobias, on the other hand, are those we tend to hear more about – my spider problem (arachnophobia) falls into this category. It’s also something people tend to throw around without really meaning it; if I’m totally honest. While spiders do make me freak out, they realistically don’t petrify me like they would true sufferers.
Phobias encompass a huge range of unexpected terrors from obscure types such as turophobia (fear of cheese) to more popular fears such as coulrophobia (fear of clowns). However, one that we probably can all identify with as students is nomophobia, more commonly known as the fear of being without mobile phone coverage. This was coined around five years ago when researchers first discovered the phenomenon – and according to recent surveys, around half of the UK suffers from it. I think I can count myself as one of them.