Phobia and fear are not the same thing.

Fear is an ancient feeling, a reaction mechanism in front of a dangerous situation. This reaction is important for our survival, because it forces us to be careful and attentive in an emergency.

The feeling of fear also puts into action a series of physiological mechanisms. Some of these are visible like paleness and shaking. Others are less visible like horripilation (when your hair sticks up), or even invisible, like changes in blood pressure and the release of adrenaline. A higher level of adrenaline in the body produces tonicity and increases muscular activity, preparing us to move quickly.

Even animals are afraid, and when they are afraid they react by attacking or running away; if they can't attack or run, they are stressed, just like with people. In attack situations, fear makes the animals produce a series of physical variations that are put into action to face the situation and to scare their adversary. In order to do this, many animals that are afraid try to give the impression of being bigger and stronger, they make themselves larger. Gorillas for example puff out their fur in order to look taller and wider; other animals puff themselves up physically like certain types of fish; others arch their backs like cats; still other, like birds fan out their feathers.

Even humans use these signals to show strength and authoritativeness. Almost all military uniforms in fact have shoulder pads in order to seem more imposing, while hats or helmets worn by the military, police or other law enforcement officials also make whoever is wearing them seem taller.

Fear in people can be provoked by:

  • a real and present situation (I am crossing the street and I see a car that is about to hit me)
  • foreseeing danger (I am about to cross the street, I know that at that particular point the traffic is very fast and that there is the risk that a driver can't see me)
  • memory of a danger (I remember that, while I was crossing the street at that particular point, I risked getting run over once)
  • idea of danger (it's dark on the road and I am afraid that someone will attack me).

In every situation of fear, it is possible to make a comparison to reality, and this helps us understand whether we really find ourselves in front of danger, or if we are exaggerating with our emotions. Very often, if we rationalise the object of our fear or if the fear-inducing situation does not happen, then our fear tends to disappear ( I am afraid to go down a steep slope with my skis, but after having done it a few times, I realise that I can do it and my fear goes away; there remains however a certain amount of caution in going own that slope).

When some of the following conditions occur, then we could be talking about a phobia:

  • terrible fear and strong anxiety for something, that according to common sense, should not cause fear (for example: taking the elevator, looking out a window, staying in a crowded room, crossing a square)
  • fear in facing an inevitable situation (leaving the house, for example) that people face every day of their lives
  • the mere thought of facing a particular situation, makes a person feel bad, provoking strong anxiety, this way of thinking is called "fear of being afraid" or "anxiety for imminent anxiety" and is a characteristic of phobias
  • the nervousness caused by a phobic thought often turns it into anxiety.
  • phobia does not mean delirium: a phobic person clearly understands that his/her fear has no reason to exist, but, on an emotional level, cannot contain the anxiety that the mere thought of facing a feared situation can provoke
  • Anxiety is a certain way of paying attention to the environment and is a way of just waiting for something to happen. A sort of pre-alarm in front of an event has drawn our attention
  • Fear, as mentioned before, is a defensive reaction in front of a precise object, a situation of danger
  • Panic is the explosion of fear that paralyses the subject and provokes irrational behaviour and disorganised thoughts. The same thing happens with terror.
  • If we use the word scared instead, we want to underline the surprise situation of someone who sudden finds themselves in danger
  • In psychiatry we speak of anxiety when nervousness starts a chain reaction of physical responses, for example: a feeling of clenching in the chest often accompanied by the need to take deep breaths or yawns, tachycardia, hyperhydrosis, muscular tension and pain, headache, stomach ache, intestinal pains.
  • According to some authors, anxiety is a form of strong nervousness, or nervousness, depression and desperation together, or a neurotic expression of normal nervousness.

But what is phobia? Does this irrational fear mean something? And how can we cure it?

Phobia is part of neurosis, those psychological disorders that do not have a physical, organic cause but are alterations in ways of thinking.

No-one is born phobic, phobia is actually an attempt at defence gone wrong, which has been built during a persons lifetime, a person who grew up in a psychologically ill environment, in order to fight off nervousness.

Anxiety, in turn, comes from a so-called "repressed conflict" , meaning a situation in which the subject refuses to face a contrast in his life; pretends it doesn't exist, eliminates it from his consciousness and transfers it to something else that is less painful to face, for example a phobia.

Freud, while describing this psychological mechanism, used the terms "repression" (to indicate the operation in which something is removed from the conscious, so that the subject can pretend that the conflict never happened) and "displacement" (the psychological artifice where the emotions that are used to face a certain conflictual thought are moved over to another thought considered easier to deal with). In the first elaboration of his theory, Freud thought that the conflict came from the contrast between the "principles of pleasure" and the "principles of reality"; afterwards he underlined the contrast between "sex drive" and "drives of the Self"; he then concluded his paper indicating the conflict between "Eros"and "Thanatos", meaning between Love/Life and Death.

In current terminology, we can say that the conflict is connected to the growth of a person and the acquisition of independence from parents and family of origin.

Healthy parents favour the independence of their children and help them acquire the instruments necessary for growth. Neurotic parents, who are psychologically ill, try to block this process, establishing a morbid relationship with their children, too intense and too close, based on the idea that "You are either with me or against me; but you cannot stay against me".

And it is because of this extremely strong connection that the children of this type of parents find it difficult to become psychologically independent. For them it is very hard to face the conflict: obey their parents (and therefore remain children forever) or build their own independence ( and therefore disobey their parents).

Not every one is able to. Many of them, rather than face a potential argument with their parents, remove it, they pretend to ignore it, and therefore start an neurotic mechanism which can develop into different forms. Phobia is one of these possible forms of neurosis.

Phobia therefore stops one from battling the real battle, which is that of being autonomous, and keeps the person in an infantile condition, characterized by the fear to act and immobility. In the life of a phobic person, novelty is something to fear and avoid, feelings of guilt are just around the corner, as soon as there is a hint of thought about independence from the family of origin. Because of this way of thought, the phobic person is insecure in facing life; the psychological barrier that should defend him from the outside, does not work properly and he is afraid of being "invaded" by the world. Those who live with phobic neurosis are repressed and ignore how their body works and how emotions are developed; they are afraid of their own impulsiveness and expressing their instincts; their parents are a marked authority which is difficult and painful to remove. Through a phobia, affection and emotions are forbidden, as is instinct and spontaneity; all of these feelings are substituted by strict "fear/non-fear" schemes which, paradoxically seem much easier to face for the phobic person.

Taking a closer look at the meaning of phobias, we can see symbolic meanings which, often in an indirect and deformed way, recall a repressed or prohibited desire that was different from what the parents wanted. Sometimes desire, prohibition, punishment, are all mixed together in the phobic mechanism.

Classification of Phobias

acrophobia fear of heights
agoraphobia fear of open spaces
aichmophobia fear of sharp objects
hamartophobia fear of making mistakes or sinning
amathophobia fear and irritation of dust
androphobia fear of men
arachnophobia fear of spiders
bathophobia fear of depth and heights
bromidrophobia excessive irritation with bad smells
brontophobia fear of thunder
cardiophobia fear of heart disease
claustrophobia fear of enclosed and/or crowded spaces
coprophobia fear of faeces which are considered the source of contagions (also called scatophobia)
chromatophobia irritation and fear of colours
demophobia fear of crowds (also called ochlophobia)
dromophobia fear of walking or travelling (also called hodophobia)
dismorphophobia fear of being ugly, deformed, unpresentable
hemophobia fear of blood
ereuthophobia fear of blushing (also called erythrophobia)
ergasiophobia fear of reacting and provoking disastrous outcomes
phagophobia irritation when eating
phasmophobia fear of ghosts
photophobia fear and irritation of light
gynophobia fear of women
hydrophobia fear of water
mysophobia fear of dirt and infection with the fear of being contaminated
necrophobia fear of death in all its forms
ophidophobia fear of snakes
rupophobia fear of dirt from which an obsession for cleaning can derive
scopophobia fear of being looked at and observed
scotophobia fear of the dark
erotophobia fear of sex and sexuality
spectrophobia fear of mirrors and seeing reflections of oneself
zoophobia fear of animals

In this context, and interpreting in general, agoraphobia (the fear of open spaces) symbolizes difficulty in staying away from the family of origin and known places; rupophobia (the fear of dirt) can indicate sexual problems and guilt connected to sex; acrophobia (the fear of heights) shows the difficulty of symbolically going up meaning to grow up; cardiophobia (the fear of heart disease) shows the difficulties that person has in acting autonomously and the hypochondriacal choice of folding in on himself and listening to his heart. And so forth.

As far as the psychotherapy of phobias is concerned, we can say that we can encounter difficulties in the healing process, when phobias have been present for many years in that person's life and are rotted into their way of life. With hypnosis, sometimes, you can obtain, even in a short amount of time, remission of the symptoms, but it usually does not last, either that symptom returns or another takes its place.

A good solution could be that of using notions of psychoanalysis and behaviourism. With psychoanalysis you can help the person know themselves better and can therefore face the real battles of their lives, to appreciate life and not be afraid of their emotions and not take refuge in another fear. Behaviourism suggests a series of exercises that can increase interior force. Along with these technique, pharmaceutical therapy should be used when phobias handicap everyday life for the patient.