“We have nothing to fear except fear itself.” This is a well-known phrase attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt at his 1933 Presidential Inauguration, but its history goes further back than that.
In the sixteenth century, the French writer Michel de Montaigne who’s believed to have invented the essay wrote, “the thing of which I have most fear is fear.” In another translation it’s worded: “The thing in the world I am most afraid of is fear, that passion alone, in the trouble of it, exceeding all other accidents.”
Whichever version is used, it’s a powerful statement about the nature of human fear and has been used by many different people over the years.
It refers to the fact that while fear is a natural response to perceived dangers and can be helpful in keeping us safe – many of us also develop phobias of things that, in reality, pose little or no threat to us. And without taking steps to overcome them, these phobias can hold us back in various aspects of life, making our world feel smaller.
While a phobia can be a heavy burden to carry, the good news is that there are plenty of things we can do to manage our fears, and eventually move past them.
Here, we’ll take a look at what fears and phobias are – as well as some of the different types and how to overcome them.
Fear or phobia?
Before looking at different fears, let us first look at fear and phobia. Are they the same?
The quick answer is no. While on the surface they might appear the same, they’re actually quite different. Fear can range from mild to severe and typically describes the primitive instinct that makes us feel concerned or worried about a threatening situation. It serves to protect us from harm by making us aware that danger may be imminent.
Fears are often fleeting and usually pass when the threat is removed, or when we discover that the threat we were anticipating wasn’t that bad, or perhaps didn’t actually happen at all.
A phobia, on the other hand, describes a fear that is persistent and debilitating – causing severe disruption to a person’s life. Because of the strength and depth of the emotions behind phobias, it may not always be possible to overcome them alone. Some people may need to seek professional help to be able to move forward.
One of the best examples to use when comparing fears and phobias is that of flying. If you have a fear of flying, then as the day of your flight approaches, your anxiety levels may increase.
On the journey to the airport, you may find that your anxiety is increasing again and your nerves are stretched. But somehow you manage to calm yourself down. You remember there’s a reason to get on the plane, such as a much anticipated holiday that you’ve been looking forward to, or a chance to travel to see friends and family.
Some people with a fear of flying might cope by taking medication or doing breathing exercises, while others might have a drink before boarding to calm their nerves – or use another method to help them get on the plane.
However, if you have a phobia of flying, just the thought of it may cause you to panic, sweat, and even be physically sick. If you’re able to board the flight at all you might cry, shake uncontrollably, have heart palpitations, feel nauseous, or have other physiological responses.
In severe cases, a person with a flying phobia might also struggle to get on the plane and avoid going to airports – even if this means cancelling holidays or business trips. And for some people, a plane flying overhead can be enough to trigger the fear response.
If this sounds familiar and you’re suffering from a phobia, then it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. There are an estimated 10 million people in the UK living with a phobia of some sort – and they can affect people of all ages, genders, and social backgrounds.
What are the symptoms of a phobia?
To help us better understand what a phobia is Mind lists the following symptoms that a person suffering from a phobia is likely to experience:
- feeling unsteady, dizzy, lightheaded, or faint
- feeling like you are choking
- a pounding heart, palpitations or accelerated heart rate
- chest pain or tightness in the chest
- hot or cold flushes
- shortness of breath or a smothering sensation
- nausea, vomiting, or diarrhoea
- numbness or tingling sensations
- trembling or shaking
The NHS article on phobias also says, “Phobias are more pronounced than fears. They develop when a person has an exaggerated or unrealistic sense of danger about a situation or object.” Phobias are the most common type of anxiety disorder.
Now that we’ve explored the difference between fears and phobias, we’ll look at some of the different types of these below…
Common fears and phobias
- Acrophobia: Fear of heights
- Aerophobia: Fear of flying
- Agoraphobia: Fear of open spaces or crowds
- Ailurophobia: Fear of cats, also known as felinophobia or gatophobia
- Arachnophobia: Fear of spiders
- Astraphobia: Fear of thunder and lightning
- Claustrophobia: Fear of confined spaces
- Cynophobia: Fear of dogs
- Hypochondria: Fear of illness
- Ornithophobia: Fear of birds
Fears and phobias that are less common
- Amaxophobia: Fear of riding in a car
- Androphobia: Fear of men
- Arachibutyrophobia: Fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth
- Globophobia: Fear of balloons
- Gynophobia: Fear of women
- Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia: Fear of long words
- Technophobia: A fear of technology
- Vehophobia: Fear of driving
Anything can be a fear or a phobia…
As can be seen, anything can be a fear or a phobia. Take, for example, the telephone – either a mobile phone or a landline phone. The simple act of answering a call or making a call can cause some people to become very anxious. The name for this is telephobia and it can cause difficulties for people of all ages.
Remarkably, there’s also a fear that’s the opposite of avoiding phones, called nomophobia, which is the fear of being without your mobile phone.
Even simple objects like cotton wool balls make some people afraid. This is called sidonglobophobia. Likewise, catoptrophobia – also called eisoptrophobia or spectrophobia – is a fear of mirrors and/or of what may be reflected in them. It also refers to a fear of ghosts. Meanwhile, bibliophobia is a fear of books, chronomentrophobia is a fear of clocks, and zuigerphobia is a fear of vacuum cleaners.
For those who suffer from deipnophobia (the fear of dining with others) and ergophobia (the fear of the workplace) being in lockdown may have provided a relief if they didn’t have to go out. Unfortunately, for those suffering from autophobia (the fear of being alone), being in lockdown, particularly if they were living on their own, would likely have increased their anxiety.
The number 13 is for some a lucky number, but for others, it’s to be avoided – and this fear has been named triskaidekaphobia. For those with this fear, Friday 13th superstitions are far from harmless fun. There’s also the fear of the number 8 (octophobia) or of all numbers (arithmophobia), rather than a specific number.
There are several phobias that are linked to medical treatment or settings. And people with a medical phobia may do all they can to avoid visiting a medical professional to seek treatment. For example, dentophobia is the fear of dentists and someone with dental issues may avoid the dentist, even with severe toothache.
To even visit a doctor to get help with their fear will be a major hurdle for someone with iatrophobia; the fear of doctors. And the same may be said for people with nosocomephobia; the fear of hospitals. Plus, in this current climate, those with a phobia of needles (trypanophobia) may have found having vaccines particularly difficult too.
Other phobias that can prevent us from moving forward with our lives include the fear of failure (atychiphobia) – which can also be linked with the fear of rejection. While there isn’t a defined term for the fear of rejection, it’s a real fear and is linked with social anxiety.
Typically, when we think of phobias, we think of specific ones – but there are also those who suffer from phobophobia. Phobophobia is the fear of having or experiencing a phobia.
How to overcome your fears and phobias
So the next big question is: how can you overcome your fear or phobia? Though it’s rarely easy and will take courage and perseverance, there are some things you can do to help minimise your fears and take back control of your life…
1. Take some time for yourself
Taking some time for yourself when you’re feeling overwhelmed with fear can help you calm down. It’s difficult to think clearly when you’re scared, so giving yourself a time out can help you to put your fear into perspective.
For example, you could go for a short walk, have a warm drink, listen to some music – or do anything that will distract you from the fear and worry for 15 minutes or so. It can also be helpful to practise mindfulness, to bring your mind back to the present moment and prevent you from catastrophising about the future.
2. Breathe through the panic
Another way to calm your anxiety is to do some breathing exercises. These can help your mind get used to coping with panic, which can ease not only the main fear itself but also the ‘fear of feeling fear’.
When we’re anxious, our breathing tends to become quicker as our bodies get ready to react with a flight or fight response. This is our body’s way of trying to get oxygen to the muscles as quickly as possible in preparation.
However, by slowing down our breathing, we can signal to the brain that this fear response isn’t needed and that there’s nothing to worry about.
3. Confront your fears
Instead of running away from your fears, it’s important to try to confront them – as, in most cases, avoiding them will only make them more alarming. If you face your fears, they should start to fade over a period of time.
The NHS website uses the example of agoraphobia; the fear of open and public places. They suggest that a way to confront this fear could be to begin by stepping out of your house for a short period of time – for example going into your garden. Then, to gradually increase the amount of time you spend outside and the distance you travel from your house. This is called exposure therapy.
For more on this, you might find it helpful to read Susan Jeffers’ book, Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway: How to Turn Your Fear Into Confidence and Action, which uses a systematic approach to help people overcome feelings of frustration, helplessness, anger, and self-doubt.
4. Understand your fear
It’s impossible to understand and overcome your fear if you keep it hidden in your subconscious. So, rather than turning away from it, it’s best to try facing it. By doing this, you’ll notice more about what triggers your fear and how it affects you, which will be the key to helping you to overcome it.
Recording your observations in a journal can be helpful, as it can make it easier to spot patterns in your behaviour. An example of this would be if you panic at the thought of making a phone call. Does your heart race or do your hands shake when you go to pick up the phone?
By writing down your fear patterns, and accepting them for what they are, you can hopefully demystify your fear and make it seem smaller and easier to overcome.
5. Take a course
There are courses that can help you cope with fear and work on overcoming it – some online and others in person.
There might also be some phobia-specific courses you can take to help build your confidence and alleviate some of your fears. For example, if you’re scared of driving and you have a licence, then you could consider taking refresher lessons to brush up on your skills and get used to being out on the road – or you could even take a practical driving anxiety support course.
Or if you have a phobia of public speaking, then you could think about taking part in classes or workshops that will help you improve your skills, get more comfortable talking in front of larger groups, and learn ways to cope if things get too much.
6. Try visualisation
Visualisation is a method of relaxation. To quote the Cambridge Dictionary, “the act of visualising something or someone = forming a picture of it in your mind”.
Visualisation is essentially another method of helping you relax and cope with your fears by distracting your mind away from any fearful thoughts, and helping you to imagine a more positive outcome.
If you want to give it a try, it’s best to make yourself comfortable in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Close your eyes and imagine a place of safety and calm. Allow those positive feelings to wash over you until you feel more relaxed. This TED Talk provides a useful guide to visualising if you’d like to learn more about the benefits and how to get started.
Another way visualising can help is to imagine overcoming your fear. If you have a fear of flying, imagine your journey to the airport all the way through to the flight. It’s a form of mental mapping and can help you succeed at what you are aiming to achieve.
7. Talk to someone you trust
Talking about your fears to someone you trust can help them seem less frightening. Also having someone listen to you and show that they care can help. If you can’t think of anyone you can talk to, you might want to contact the Samaritans on 116 123.
If you’re unable to do this, you might find it useful to write down your fears – as this can be an effective way of setting out your thoughts, so you can see things more clearly.
8. Go for a walk, get a good night’s sleep, and eat well
In some cases, it may be tempting to turn to alcohol or drugs to treat a fear or phobia, but this can make things worse. So, on all accounts, it’s best to avoid self-medicating.
9. Reinforce your successes
When you’ve faced a fear (even a way you may consider to be small), it’s important to remember to treat yourself and celebrate your achievements. It doesn’t matter how you do this, as long as it makes you feel good.
For example, if you have a phobia of making phone calls, you could say to yourself, ‘There’s that book I’ve been wanting for ages. After I’ve made that call, I’ll treat myself to it.’ Giving yourself small milestones to work towards will help to reinforce your success at making the call, and give you more confidence and incentive to face it again next time.
10. Seek help from a medical professional if you feel you need it
If your fears are controlling your life, it can be a good idea to ask your GP for help, as they might be able to refer you for counselling or psychotherapy (for example, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)). They can refer you for this themselves or they might suggest that you make a self-referral.
There’s also the Living Life to the Full online mental health service, which your doctor might point you in the direction of. This is a helpful course that you can work through in your own time, that’s designed to help tackle stress, anxiety, and low mood.
It’s worth noting that taking medication to help with your fears/phobias isn’t normally recommended. This is because talking therapies are seen as more effective and don’t have any side effects. Though the NHS website’s page on treatment for phobias does say that medication is sometimes prescribed on a short-term basis to treat the effects of phobias.
As can be seen, fear can be simple and controllable, or it can become a phobia that is much more debilitating. A fear of flying can be a case of getting nervous going to the airport and boarding the plane. Or it can be a phobia which could mean that even airports or a plane flying overhead are enough to cause you distress.
However, although fears and phobias can be distressing, it’s important to remember that there are ways to control them – which includes seeking help from a doctor or someone you trust, confronting your fears rather than avoiding them, and reinforcing your successes.
Overcoming your fear also involves stepping outside of your comfort zone, so you might want to read more about that in our article here.
If you have a fear or phobia, then you will already know how tough it can be. But, if you don’t, and are reading this article out of interest or to help a loved one, it’s important to remember that fears and phobias are very real to those that have them – even if you can’t imagine having similar feelings yourself. Keeping this in mind and being as supportive as possible may go a long way in helping them to face and hopefully overcome their fears.