By Anju Miura


What are you most afraid of?


Maybe your stomach sinks when a spider crawls by or an MRI feels like the end of the world.


Certainly, you are not the only one dreading a particular object or situation, but you may not know whether your irrational fear is actually a phobia.


The distinction between fear and phobia can be vague, but the important difference is that phobias evoke more intense and persistent desire to avoid a very specific object or experience. If you have an anxiety that arouses as soon as you see a clown so dreadful that you refuse to go to a Halloween party, you may have a phobia.


More than 12 percent of U.S. adults experience a phobia at some point during their life, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. So you or someone you know is likely dealing with these fears everyday.


Here is a breakdown of a few common phobias.

1. Arachnophobia (spiders): You may scream or try to escape when you find a spider in your room. A fear of creepy crawlers is commonly shared, however, less than 30 out of more than 43,000 species can cause serious harm to humans.


2. Acrophobia (heights): You probably know a friend or two who are afraid of going to the top floor of a skyscraper or riding a roller coaster — they may find themselves shaking, sweating and feeling paralyzed when they realize how high off the ground they are.


If you have acrophobia, it’s important to seek professional help because, unlike other phobias, having a panic attack in a high place can be dangerous.


3. Fear of flying: The odds of experiencing a plane crash are one in 11 million. You are far more likely to become a movie star, at a little under one in 1.2 million odds, than dying from a plane crash.


Although the probability is so low, many people still hesitate to travel by airplane.


Flying Without Fear is a program that provides a wide range of courses to teach relaxation and meditation exercises prior to going on an airplane flight, helping people overcome their phobic fear of flying.


4. Claustrophobia (enclosed spaces): A fear of being closed in a small place is a relatively common phobia. Enclosed spaces, like an elevator or MRI chamber, may make you feel like there is no escape.  


What causes phobia?

Based on behavioral-psychological theories, phobia comes from a learned fear of certain objects or situations. Much like Pavlov’s dog, once we acquire the fear, we come to avoid the fearful objects or situation, which only worsens the symptoms.


You may develop a phobia from a traumatic experience or through watching a movie or listening to a tale that terrifies you for a long period of time. Many phobias are often onset later in life, making it harder to break these habits.


How can you overcome them?

You may need to see a psychiatrist if your phobia interferes with your everyday life, but you can work to handle your phobic fear by using a cognitive behavioral technique called systematic desensitization.


First, make a list of the objects or situations ordered from mildly to extremely upsetting.


Then, train yourself on how to conjure a state of deep muscle relaxation, and make it an everyday routine. Meditative practices, such as yoga and long walks, or anxiety relief products, like stress balls and soothing candles, can help you to learn how to relax.


The last step is to apply the learned relaxation technique to your fearful objects. Starting at the bottom of your fear list, you are exposed to what you dread and learn how to relax when you see them.


Gradually, but surely, you will be able to overcome your irrational and persistent fear.