Why Do Phobias Make Us See Danger Where There Is None?

Why do Phobias make us see danger where there is none?

Is a rat that crossed the street really dangerous? A distant thunder in the city? Is a person’s life at risk when traveling on a crowded train? These are some of the questions that someone who has never suffered from a phobia might ask. And, in essence, the fact that these questions are raised is more than understandable—and logical!—; because if there is something that those who observe this pathology from the outside notice, it is the “lack of logic” in that fear. In other words, The fear that the phobic may feel of a certain object is, in the eyes of others, harmless.

However, a fact that tends to be ignored is that people who suffer from a specific phobia are aware of the mismatch of their fear with respect to the real threat; but, nevertheless, when faced with the object in question, an avalanche of unpleasant physical sensations and catastrophic thoughts invade them in the time that a click lasts. To address this issue, we must first highlight that, although the phobic is overestimating the consequences of a threat, we must be careful not to invalidate their discomfort. The set of mechanisms that a person deploys to avoid that feared object interferes with their life in a drastic way, diminishing many of their vital areas, so it is necessary to be understanding of them and their suffering.

In line with the objective of better understanding those who suffer from this psychopathology, we ask ourselves: Why do phobias make people perceive dangers where there are none?

What is a phobia?

In the first instance, we must know that a phobia involves intense and immediate fear or anxiety about a specific object or situation. Some of the most common are heights, blood, the administration of an injection or an animal.

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Of course, to be considered as such, the phobia must persist for a more or less prolonged period of time – diagnostic manuals such as the DSM-5 suggest that it must last for six or more months – and, above all, it must be accompanied by a systematic avoidance of all possible situations in which the person could encounter the feared object. For example, Sigmund Freud’s famous patient, little Hans, suffered from a phobia of horses at the beginning of the 20th century. At that time, it was common for horses to be present at all times on the streets. In this way, the boy avoided any situation in which a horse could find himself, which was evidently very difficult for him; an avoidance that in the long run ended up generating high levels of suffering.

This leads to emphasizing another factor about phobias, and that is that they have a negative impact on multiple dimensions of a person’s life. Someone who has a situational phobia of being trapped in an elevator, but whose office is on the ninth floor, will have to take the stairs every day to get to work. It is evident that The phobia will have repercussions in the workplace, but it could also affect your social relationships (for example, causing difficulties when it comes to combining schedules with your partner to arrive at work early), among other areas. Now, why is it that some people suffer intense fears of circumstances like these that, apparently, are harmless? Let’s see it below.

Why are we afraid of non-existent dangers?

In order to delve into the causes of a phobia, it is necessary to resort to a multifactorial explanation. This means that Not all phobias originate from a traumatic childhood experience starring a certain object or animal. Scientific research indicates that while these are possible causes, there are other factors that may explain why some people experience an intense fear of non-threatening objects.

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Other ways of displaying a phobia are based on learning from the stories and experiences of others (what in English is called vicarious learning) or negative information from the environment. For this reason, popular culture has encouraged many people to develop specific phobias of certain characters, animals or circumstances whose real danger is much less than that characterized, as occurs in the case of taking a plane flight – there are too many films about air disasters that support this image -; or as happens with spiders and clowns.

The role of the amygdala in phobia

On a neurobiological level, how does a phobia manage to make us feel such fear in the face of certain stimuli? Well, although there are many structures involved in this process, The role of the amygdala is key in explaining fear responses. This structure is responsible for processing emotional stimuli in general, and particularly stimuli that trigger fear responses.

The amygdala can provide a rapid, universal and stereotyped response to dangerous universal stimuli, without the need to give it complex cognitive processing, with the aim of acting effectively in the face of present threats. If more elaborate processing is required, it can send that information to the cerebral cortex.

What happens with phobias is that greater activity is generated in this area when the stimulus that was learned as dangerous (the needle, the spider, etc.) is detected, greater activity compared to other unpleasant stimuli. Furthermore, the processing of the phobic object or situation appears to be, in essence, automatic. When people maintain their attention on the phobic image, there is an activation of a network of structures – such as the orbitofrontal cortex, the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex – but when their attention is not directed towards the phobic stimulus, the activation of the amygdala.

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This evidence could be useful to argue the situation from which we start: although phobias make us see danger where there is none (we now know, due to the high activation of our amygdala and other structures), People who suffer from a phobia feel an excessive fear of the object in a matter of seconds, even without being aware of it. It is for this reason that it is important to be empathetic with them, understand their pain, and accompany as much as possible so that these people access treatment with a mental health professional.