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What causes fear?

What causes fear?
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There aren’t that many things in this world that are inherently scary. An object only becomes an object of fear when a person decides that they view it as a threat. For example, many people are afraid of heights. Fair enough – one could fall and die if they’re on the thin edge of a tall cliff. However, there are also people who are afraid of things that aren’t life-threatening, like public speaking. Nevertheless, it is still a common fear. But why? Clinical psychologist, Dr Dana Dorfman, says, “Common fears [and] phobias are a by-product of one or more of the following causes: evolution, genetics, learned behaviour, or trauma.”

Read on to find out how to overcome a fear of needles.

What are the most common fears?

What are the most common fears?
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“Fear of heights (acrophobia), closed spaces (claustrophobia), and fear of illness [nosophobia] represent potential threats to our physical safety,” Dorfman notes. The same goes for things like fear of spiders (arachnophobia) and insects. But not all of the top fears have to do with physical threats. According to Dr Dorfman, many of the most common fears are emotional fears, e.g. fear of public speaking or fear of abandonment, isolation, humiliation, shame and sadness.

The sources of phobias are diverse, and some might surprise you, including these strange phobias you never knew existed.

What’s the difference between phobias and fear?

What’s the difference between phobias and fear?
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Phobias are an extreme, persistent, irrational fear of objects or situations, but they differ from fear. In addition to immediate anxiety, people with phobias often actively avoid things related to the subject, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the ‘bible’ of psychiatry. People with this type of anxiety disorder also experience excessive or unreasonable fear that is out of proportion to the actual danger. For example, someone with thalassophobia, or fear of the deep ocean, probably won’t travel by ferry, despite the low risk something might go wrong. It’s a reaction that goes beyond the nervousness or uncomfortable feeling of moderate fear and it can impair their ability to live daily life.

So why are these fears so common?

So why are these fears so common?
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As mentioned earlier, there are four possible reasons behind every fear. A fear can develop through the process of evolution and be handed down as a result of genetics. With emotion-based fears and phobias, a person may learn fearful behaviour from a close family member or experience it after a severe trauma. Because all people have a common evolutionary history, and because we all learn behaviours and take part in the same society, it is only natural that people often fear the same things.

Do you have nomophobia? Find out here.

What does evolution have to do with it?

What does evolution have to do with it?
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“While individuals are unique,” Dr Dorfman explains, “there are fundamental similarities in our construction. From an evolutionary standpoint, our brains are wired with a protective alarm system that alerts us to potential threats.” This is what people commonly refer to as “animal instinct.” Humans want to avoid harm and death, so we avoid and fear whatever we think may cause that. That is why when people experience fear, they become “equipped with physiological responses (anxiety symptoms) to notify [them] of imminent danger.” Adrenaline starts pumping. There is the urge to flee, or maybe just freeze; anything that the human brain thinks may help someone get out of a dangerous situation.

Check out these short rituals you can do every day to boost your mental health.

How does the brain process fear?

How does the brain process fear?
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The human brain is nothing short of incredible. Neuroscientists at MIT have found that “the human brain can process entire images that the eye sees for as little as 13 milliseconds.” So before the brain is even fully aware of the exact details of a situation, it is able to process it in some form. Dr Dorfman asserts, “Before fully being able to process information through reason, our brains scan and detect environmental threats to physical safety and notifies the rest of the body to respond accordingly.” The brain immediately tags something as threatening or non-threatening, so when two different objects appear to be similar, the brain may erroneously treat them as if they are equally dangerous when they aren’t.

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Why are people so afraid of spiders?

Why are people so afraid of spiders?
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Bugs, insects, arachnids – these creatures are big sources of fear and phobias for many people. While some of them are poisonous, others are not. And yet, someone could be as afraid of stinkbugs (non-venomous) as they are of Black Widow spiders (venomous). Why? “Back in the day,” Dr Dorfman says, “insects represented poisonous creatures whose infectious bites could lead to fatal injury. The brain may be predisposed to anxious responses to these ‘dangerous’ creatures.” So because the brain has learned to associate some spiders with injury or even death, that fear has evolved into a more generalised fear of all creatures that appear similar even if they are not dangerous.

How is fear genetic?

How is fear genetic?
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Sometimes fear is out of proportion to what the perceived danger actually is. In a nutshell, that is what people call anxiety. As with other mental disorders, researchers have found that anxiety disorders (and therefore fear) can be influenced by genetics. The Scientific American reports that in mice, fear can be “selectively bred into succeeding generations.”  Dr Dorfman affirms, “Because it is embedded in our DNA, its specific expression can be hereditary.” So fear is developed through the process of evolution, and then it can be passed down through bloodlines. We share common fears because fear literally spreads.

How do we learn fear?

How do we learn fear?
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Growing up, children learn from their environment. A significant part of that environment is the people with whom they live, such as parents or other family members. “If a child observed a parent’s anxious response to insects,” Dr Dorfman posits, “she quickly learns that insects are something to be afraid of, and may be at risk of developing [a phobia or] learning to be phobic.” Combine a genetic predisposition to fear and anxiety with learned anxious behaviour and you’ve got a phobia.

Read on for the silent signs of anxiety in children.

How is fear related to trauma?

How is fear related to trauma?
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Dr Dorfman says, “The mind absorbs and reminds us of previously experienced traumas – some of which manifest in phobias.” Trauma isn’t typically the root cause of phobias, but it can be if it is incredibly severe. The most obvious manifestation of this is in our emotional fears. For instance, some people fear making a close emotional connection with a new romantic partner when they have been emotionally traumatised in a similar, previous relationship. It’s the mind’s attempt to protect itself from further emotional pain, but this can often result in behavioural disorders which need treatment.

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