Mad About Science: Common phobias

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Staff

We are all scared of things. Losing our keys, the death of a loved one, or that little terrier that’s barking some horrible insults about your mother in dog language.

A phobia transcends what it means to be simply afraid of something. A phobia can take the air from your lungs, set your heart racing and instill a seemingly inescapable anxiety that can lead to an emotional and mental breakdown. The term phobia is used interchangeably with simple fear, which doesn’t do justice to people that suffer crippling anxiety when presented with a situation they are terrified by.


Phobias are a curious thing in human psychology. Someone may have a phobia of an event they’ve never experienced. Certain phobias seem to have a genetic component present at birth, which could play into the idea of genetic memory. Genetic memory essentially means that we have some specific and complicated functions hard-coded into our DNA, passed on by untold millions of our ancestors. This idea was explored in the Assassin’s Creed series of video games, in which scientists probed the lead character’s DNA to search for clues to the location of long-hidden treasure and key events in history through the eyes of his ancestors.

A more likely source of most phobias is a negative experience during a major developmental period of our brains, such as early childhood. Our brains may not have fully understood the event at the time, but it was jarring enough to be scarred into our memory forever. An example would be if you had been bitten by a dog as a child, and suffered from cynophobia, or a crippling fear of dogs.

A third possible origin of phobias comes from one of our most powerful and destructive survival skills as a species: social learning. Humans are born storytellers. Look at any Facebook timeline: We regale our friends with our valiant expedition to retrieve a $5 frappe every Thursday, and the moment we receive bad service from the barista, our entire following learns and adapts to this information. This works especially well in scenarios where someone’s life is imperilled, such as an accident or an animal attack.

Unique to the last three generations of humankind is mass media. Our ability to tell stories and relay terrifying information to impart social learning is amplified a millionfold once you can broadcast it to an audience in a theater or on the internet. The movie, Jaws, is believed to have single-handedly instilled thalassophobia (fear of the sea) in an entire generation of moviegoers.

Enough about causation, let’s find out what thalassophobia means.

Thalassophobia — A fear of deep water, or what lurks beneath. This is a fear that is commonly shared among most of humankind, not just because of a movie about a giant killer shark, but because we are naturally afraid of the unknown. Deep water represents everything that terrifies us to the core of our being: Not being able to see 20 feet ahead of us and having no idea whether or not something will destroy our entire existence just outside of our view. This is a theme commonly explored by master of horror, H.P. Lovecraft, specifically in his Cthluhu mythos.

Claustrophobia — A fear of enclosed spaces, particularly with your hands stuck behind you. That mere phrase to most can cause hyperventilation. My bad. Claustrophobia is one of the most common phobias, and has been linked widely to a mechanism for dealing with childhood abuse, or a child’s way of processing a parent’s anxiety when the child is too young to understand the source of the adult’s problems. It is also often caused by a traumatic experience, such as being stuck on an airplane during turbulence or locked in an elevator that gets stuck between floors for an extended period of time.

Agoraphobia — Many perceive this to be the opposite of claustrophobia, but that’s not correct. Often described as a fear of open spaces, it’s actually very closely linked to claustrophobia and thalassophobia as a fear of lacking control; particularly in the ability to escape a bad situation. As an example, someone may avoid music concerts with thousands of people because they don’t have a clear escape route if a fire suddenly starts. Agoraphobia can often be a symptom of other emotional problems that manifest in a way that’s easier for the brain to understand. Essentially, it can be the brain’s way of saying, “I cannot control so many things in my life, so if I avoid these situations, I take back control.” Unfortunately, this will sometimes devolve into a seemingly inescapable cycle, which has unfortunately been mocked in popular TV shows and movies such as House, M.D. and Shameless.

Phobias are not easily conquered. Curing someone of thalassophobia isn’t as easy as pushing them into a lake — this is actually extremely dangerous. The best way to conquer a phobia is with the support of people around you that you trust, who are willing to help face the phobia with you one step at a time, often with the help of a mental health professional. Facing fear in a situation you have total control over is the first step to overcoming it.

If you need more help, you know where I’m going to point you: to a librarian. And if you suffer from bibliophobia (the fear of books), just give them a call. They’ll find all of the resources you need, and even hook you up with a library card when you’re ready.

Stay curious, 7B.

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