The composition of phobias

The composition of phobias

Fear in the face of danger is of course a normal reaction. But when we react with fear in situations that are not really dangerous, we sometimes call it anxiety. In a sense, anxiety is fear gone astray. Phobia is another word for misplaced fear. Phobia is an irrational, intense and persistent fear of certain situations, activities, objects, animals or people. The main symptom of this disorder is the excessive and unreasonable desire to avoid what we fear. There are many different phobias, but the theory that will be explored in this article suggests that each phobia is a combination of five underlying fears.

The sensation of fear is one we all know: ‘butterflies’ in the stomach, dry mouth, sweaty palms, dizziness, shortness of breath, stammering, and the inability to think clearly. This response is automatic and hard to overcome, especially when each individual exposure to the stimulus you fear strengthens the response.

Understanding where fear comes from is an interesting pursuit, and the theory that will be explored in this piece suggests that each phobia is a combination of five underlying fears. Consider these in a similar sense to each flavour being made of five underlying tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami. The proposed underlying fears are:

  • Mutilation: fear of losing or sustaining damage to any part of your body, internal or external
  • Separation: fear of being abandoned or rejected, or a perceived loss of personal worth
  • Ego-death: fear of loss of integrity of the self, either through humiliation, shame, or feelings of worthlessness
  • Extinction: fear of ceasing to exist (most commonly described as a fear of dying)
  • Loss of autonomy: fear of being restricted in some way, either temporarily (trapped) or permanently (paralysed)

Breaking down some of the most common fears in terms of the ones outlined above is an interesting way to understand the impact they have on us. Below are the three of the top fears felt by the US public, and some thoughts on their composition:



fear of spidersArachnophobia is well known, and malevolent spiders feature in many fantasy novels (Harry Potter’s Aragog and Lord of the Rings’ Shelob immediately spring to mind). This phobia represents a combination of fears of mutilation and, depending on the severity, of extinction.

While some spiders are poisonous, the level of exposure to these in day-to-day life is very low compared to the prevalence of the fear. The evolutionary argument suggests that fear of spiders is an artefact from when they were more of a risk to survival, but there is also the belief that the fear is only widespread because it is passed around easily on a societal level (for example between children and parents).



Grim ReaperDespite macho claims, this has undoubtedly entered everybody’s mind at least once. What happens after death? Is there an afterlife? These are both questions best answered elsewhere, but the sense of unease you feel when considering them points at the common underlying fear of dying.

When you break this fear down in terms of the five fears outlined above, it obviously best represents a fear of extinction. Often, depending on the views and other fears of the person, it will be paired to one or more of the others: being buried alive, for example, is a combination of fear of loss of autonomy and ultimately of extinction.


Being a failure

Being a failureThis represents a mixture of fear of separation and ego-death. It is the root of many fears including public speaking, performance, and being the centre of attention. The evolutionary argument suggests that in social groups earlier in history, making a big deal of yourself and attracting attention may have resulted in problems or increased your risk of conflict, so people evolved to learn to be wary.

Often there is a discrepancy between peoples’ perception of you versus your own, so often thoughts of being a failure are often not manifest in others.

So, does knowledge of how fears work help us to reduce the hold they have on us? The NHS webpage on fighting your fears details ten methods people can use to tackle day-to-day fears, and ‘Get real’ is on the list. It says that “fears tend to be much worse than reality” and that by remembering that the response is normal and the threat is usually not as severe as the perception, you can reduce their effect.

Understanding the composition of your fears can help you to address each part individually, too. If you know that fear of spiders is commonly passed between parents and children, you can investigate whether your fear has tangible roots or whether it is just habit. This may be the prompt you need to realise that you’re not actually as afraid as you thought you were.


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