If you think about it, it is interesting that, out of all of the things in the world to be afraid of, people commonly fear the same handful of things. Bees, spiders, sharks, darkness, heights, closed spaces, public speaking, being alone…why is that our brains seem hardwired to fear these things more than all of the other terrifying things in the world (like the simple fact that we’re only separated from the vastness of space by a few layers of atmosphere)?
Well, it turns out that psychology has some answers. According to clinical psychologist and PhD Dana Dorfman, “common fears and phobias are a byproduct of one or more of the following causes: evolution, genetics, learned behavior, or trauma.”
Psychologists break fears and phobias down into two categories: physical and emotional. And the prevailing belief is that they stem from different places in human experience.
So here we go – let’s take a look at 8 of the most common human fears and what science believes causes them in so many people.
Physical Phobias and Fears
Common phobias like acrophobia (fear of heights), claustrophobia (fear of closed spaces), nosophobia (fear of illness), and arachnophobia (fear of spiders, which extends to other insects that are potentially harmful), all pose physical threats. The rational fear of these things has helped human beings survive for eons, and so the fact that we retain some level of leeriness is expected and healthy.
“While individuals are unique, 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,” explained Dr. Dorfman.
That said, some fears go beyond a normal survival parameter to become phobias.
A phobia is defined as an extreme, persistent, irrational fear of objects or situations that causes extreme anxiety disproportionate to the actual danger. For some, these anxiety disorders can impair their ability to live daily life.
Scientists believe that, in addition to evolution, genetics could play a part in anxiety and other fear disorders. The Scientific American reports that fear has been “selectively bred into succeeding generations” of mice, and “because it is embedded in our DNA, its specific expression can be hereditary.”
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Essentially, it’s possible that humans also pass fears and anxiety onto our children and grandchildren – phobias, or the predilection toward them – could be in your very blood.
Emotional fears and phobias,
You can also learn fear from a parent or caregiver, or end up with a phobia as the result of extreme trauma, says Dr. Dorfman.
“The mind absorbs and reminds us of previously experienced traumas – some of which manifest in phobias.”
Trauma rears its ugly head most often in emotional fears and phobias, Dr. Dorfman explains.
“People also experience phobias related to their emotional security; fearing humiliation, shame, sadness, and emotional pain.”
Those types of fears typically manifest as social phobias like a fear of public speaking, and sometimes show up as things like attachment disorders or an inability to trust in relationships.
What’s interesting is that emotional fears can also stem from a common evolutionary need – humans are social beings, and being cast out or alone could easily have been deadly to our ancestors.
“As social beings who are reliant on others for survival, these emotional threats jeopardize our fundamental needs of acceptance and belonging.”
As everyone who has survived middle school knows, feeling judged or being shunned by your peers feels as dangerous as any physical threat, in the moment.
I’m totally fascinated by how our collective human minds work!
Did you know any of this? Do you fear any of these things (bees here)? Let us know whether you’re one of us – or an outlier – in the comments!