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How fear can make things worse

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

Almost all of us have a fear of one thing or another. A trip to the dentist, walking along a ridgeline at height, maybe even drowning. But the thing is, when those fears become so severe that they cause tremendous anxiety and interfere with your normal life, they’re called phobias. And they definitely aren’t the same. When it comes to phobias, there is an understanding that fear of a situation or thing is at the root. But is also driven by anxiety, which can make things much worse. What many of us don’t realise is how phobias have the power to alter our perceptions of all kinds of things.

In February 2012, Ohio State University researchers published an article which looked into how phobias affect the perception of feared objects or situations. It was intended to inform professionals and clinicians to design more effective treatments for people to overcome their fears and be supported more effectively. It was conducted with those who suffer from arachnophobia, a fear of spiders, and it worked like this: the participants who feared spiders were exposed to live spiders on five different occasions, and each time asked to provide size estimates of the spiders after those encounters ended. They were also asked to document their feelings of fear and symptoms as a result of being exposed to that which they have a phobia of. The findings? The more afraid the participants said they were of the spiders, the larger they estimated the spiders had been.

Professor Vasey, one of the lead researchers on the study commented at the end of the study that “we already knew fear and anxiety alter thoughts about the feared thing. For example, the feared outcome is interpreted as being more likely than it really is. But this study shows that even perception is altered by fear. In this case, the feared spider is seen as being bigger. And that may serve as a maintaining factor for the fear.” One thing that is clear that we can draw from this? The research demonstrates one significant way in which phobia sufferers can be adversely affected by the high functioning fears they have. Irrational or not.

Then there are the physical symptoms of fear and phobias which differ radically. Consider taking a flight, someone with a small fear may feel nervous prior or during take off, or during turbulence; meanwhile an individual with aerophobia might just avoid flying at all costs. What about public speaking? Experiencing butterflies when initially standing in front of the audience is commonplace, but excessive perspiration and stiffening of muscles affects those with glossophobia. Then there is the unpleasant feeling of receiving an injection when the needle pierces the skin versus a needle phobic person being physically ill at the prospect of such a procedure. Those with phobias experience challenging physical reactions which others simply don’t.

So, yes, many of us have fears about particular objects or situations, and this is perfectly normal. But when it comes to phobias, they are more intense and anxiety inducing and ultimately have the ability to affect our perception and therefore judgements in all kinds of situations. The shame of it is that it can alienate those with a phobia, since their fear can become irrational to the point that others don’t understand. And from there, stigma is born.


There is much to be said about the positive perception change with regards to mental health. Particularly this year, when it has been at the forefront of discussions about those locked down at home and experiencing the challenges that it brought. But this also signals that there was, or more accurately still is, stigma surrounding it. This is true for phobias and those who suffer from them are exposed to that regularly. Would you like to learn more about some classic comments to avoid when supporting someone with a phobia? Check out what Liam Tracey wrote about Phobias and society.

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