Phobias may be strong enough to interfere with normal routines, work, or relationships and cause significant distress.Photograph: ANTON HAMMERL

As many men, as many minds, the saying goes – and as many phobias, one may add.

The fact is a whole range of phobias affect people the world over, in some instances to such an extent that the fear of fear (anxiety) and avoidance associated with phobias, may be strong enough to interfere with normal routines, work, or relationships and cause significant distress. In turn, this may have a negative impact on an individual’s mental well-being. So said Daniel Rabinowitz, clinical psychologist associated with Daniel Rabinowitz, clinical psychologist associated with Akeso Clinic and the Cape Behavioural Therapists.

He describes a phobia as “a groundless fear and avoidance of an object or situation.

It differs from other generalised anxiety disorders in that the individual is acutely aware of the specific fear or cause.

However, people do not usually mull over their phobia unless there is a possibility that they will encounter the fear in real life. When people encounter the phobic stimulus, they may logically understand that there is no reason to be afraid, but are still unable to control the emotions and bodily sensations that accompany the phobia.


Understanding how the chemistry works in our brain is crucial to understanding phobias, Rabinowitz said. “There are various parts of the brain which are implicated in a phobic reaction. Some areas of the brain – the prefrontal cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and the amygdala – store and recall dangerous or potentially deadly events.“In future occasions, if a very similar event is confronted, those areas retrieve that same memory, causing the body to react as if it was happening again. Neuroscience researchers have found that phobias are often linked to the amygdala, which triggers the release of ‘fight-or-flight’ hormones, which put the body and mind in a highly alert and stressed state”, Rabinowitz pointed out.


Dr Edmund Bourne, PhD, a well-regarded specialist in the treatment of anxiety disorders for more than two decades, suggests that a phobia may be the result of cumulative stress acting out over time, Rabinowitz added. According to Dr Bourne, there are numerous factors which cause a person to develop a phobia, but that stress over time plays a key role. Some phobias may develop because of something that happened early in life, such as an unpleasant experience in a confined space (claustrophobia), or a dog bite which makes one scared of animals (zoophobia). But, more complex phobias are thought to come about slowly as a combination of life experiences, brain chemistry, and genetics.


“A specific phobia typically involves a strong fear and avoidance of one particular type of object or situation. Direct exposure to the feared object or situation may elicit a panic reaction.This is an abrupt surge of intense fear that results in intense discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes, during which four (or more) of the following are experienced: Pounding heart, sweating, trembling/shaking, shortness of breath, feelings of choking, chest pain/discomfort, nausea or abdominal distress, dizziness/light-headedness, chills/heat sensations, numbness, feelings of being detached from yourself or the world, fear of ‘going crazy’, and/or a fear of dying”, Rabinowitz explained.


Treatment is advised if a phobia causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning,Rabinowitz advised.

However, one should always consult properly trained mental health professionals, such as registered clinical psychologists or psychiatrists who will help to determine if medication is a suitable intervention.

Examples of phobias/Different kinds of phobias

1. Arachnophobia – The fear of spiders affects women four times more (48% women and 12% men).

2. Acrophobia – The fear of heights. Affects 5% of the general population suffer from this phobia.

3. Ornithophobia – The fear of birds. Individuals suffering from this may only fear certain species.

4. Trypanophobia – The fear of needles. I used to fear needles (that and death).

5. Hemophobia – The fear of blood. Even the sight of blood can cause fainting.

6. Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia – The fear of long words. Believe it or not, it’s real.

7. Telephonophobia – The fear of talking on the phone. Phobics prefer texting.

8. Pogonophobia – The fear of beards or being scared of/around bearded men.

9. Didaskaleinophobia – The fear of school. This phobia affects kids mostly.

10. Technophobia – The fear of technology is often induced by culture/religion