What are you afraid of?

catie flaherty

We all have that one thing that makes our skin crawl. It makes the hair on the back of our neck to stand up. Our face turns white, and suddenly we are in a state of  complete shock caused by personal fears. Fears, however come in two different categories; rational and irrational.

According to Helpguide.org a non-profit expert website with PhD counselors, rational fears are simple fears that are relative and considered healthy within the frame of human mindset. This type of fear directly influences one’s human response system regarding fight-or-flight in a specific situation. Rational fears can be seen as a defensive measure to protect one from harmful forces in the outside world.

Some physical response indicators of rational fears include excessive sweating, dilation of pupils, tunnel vision, and an increased heart rate and blood pressure.  The most common rational fears among people include heights, darkness, loud noises, and animals such as snakes.

The second type of fear, irrational fears, are more complex in nature and are unhealthy towards a person’s well being. Irrational fears may be referred to as phobias and serve no useful purpose. Many phobias are sourced through either traumatic events, social workings, cultural aspects, things one cannot control, and genetic influences.

Traumatic events are the most common source of phobia and can include a variety of different events. The social workings are mostly sourced through observation during childhood of those around someone which would cause psychological angst later in life. Cultural influences are usually associated with location as well, meaning where one was raised typically is considered comfortable so if they venture elsewhere they may be confronted with different cultural aspects that could trigger an irrational fear because of the unfamiliarity with their surroundings. The genetic source basically means if a family member has a certain phobia a child is most likely to be affected by that phobia because of their close interaction with their parental units through childhood.

Some common irrational fears include being afraid of germs, fear of social rejection, fear of failure, and the fear of flying.

One student commented she was “afraid of seafood, like shrimp and tuna” but preferred not to be named because of the embarrassing nature she felt about the fear. Another student, Andreas Okorn, commented he was “terrified of spiders bigger than a quarter, needles, and hospital tools.”

Many students I interviewed relayed a strong sense of arachnophobia— the fear of spiders. I personally share this phobia and believe it is because of their mysterious and uncontrollable nature for which they are found.

The physical reactions to irrational fears are similar to that of rational fears but range from mild to severe depending on the severity of the phobia. Some of these reactions include a shortness of breath, shooting pains within the chest, sweating, nausea, fainting, and shaking.

I had the opportunity to interview a student with a severe phobia that has had physical effects and impacted the way she lives day-to-day.

A student, who preferred to be unnamed, recalled her fear of drowning to be “so severe that she would wake up in the middle of the night from nightmares of drowning to her death.” She also remembers having many sleepless nights due to her phobia and inability to fall back asleep. She thinks her fear originated from the fact that she “experienced a close drowning incident when she was very little a lake one summer.”  Over the last year her nightmares have dwindled and believes the phobia has “hibernated” but thinks “it will most likely return to haunt me.” Her parents have suggested going to therapy but she refuses to “relive the memories because it will only make everything that much worse.” Her phobia of drowning has also invaded her social life by “preventing her from enjoying a beach day with her friends and always being super nervous around pools.”

The psychological aspect of irrational fears creates a survival template imbedded in the brain which are unfortunate towards the user. Severe phobias can impact one’s daily struggle to fit in within the confines of societal structure. Therapy can be used to help cope with the trauma associated but typically only dulls the severity of the phobia.