Why So Many People Are Scared of These 10 Things

Updated: Nov. 04, 2020

Some of our top fears include both emotional and physical threats. Here's what you should know about fear.

​What causes fear?

There aren’t that many things in this world that are inherently scary. An object only becomes an object of fear when a person decides that they view it as a threat. For example, many people are afraid of heights. Fair enough—one could fall and die if they’re on the thin edge of a tall cliff. However, there are also people who are afraid of things that aren’t life-threatening, like public speaking. Nevertheless, it is still a common fear. But why? Dana Dorfman, PhD, a clinical psychologist affiliated with New York University, says, “Common fears [and] phobias are a byproduct of one or more of the following causes: evolution, genetics, learned behavior, or trauma.”

What are the most common fears?

“Fear of heights (acrophobia), closed spaces (claustrophobia), and fear of illness [nosophobia] represent potential threats to our physical safety,” Dorfman notes. The same goes for things like fear of spiders (arachnophobia) and insects. But not all of the top fears have to do with physical threats. According to Dr. Dorfman, many of the most common fears are emotional fears, e.g. fear of public speaking or fear of abandonment, isolation, humiliation, shame, and sadness. The sources of phobias are diverse, and some might surprise you, including these strange phobias you never knew existed.

What’s the difference between phobias and fear?

Phobias are an extreme, persistent, irrational fear of objects or situations, but they differ from fear. In addition to immediate anxiety, people with phobias often actively avoid things related to the subject, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the “bible” of psychiatry. People with this type of anxiety disorder also experience excessive or unreasonable fear that is out of proportion to the actual danger. For example, someone with thalassophobia, or fear of the deep ocean, probably won’t travel by ferry, despite the low risk something might go wrong. It’s a reaction that goes beyond the nervousness or uncomfortable feeling of moderate fear and it can impair their ability to live daily life. (Find out if Covid-19 is giving you agoraphobia.)

So why are these fears so common?

As mentioned earlier, there are four possible reasons behind every fear. A fear can develop through the process of evolution and be handed down as a result of genetics. With emotion-based fears and phobias, a person may learn fearful behavior from a close family member or experience it after a severe trauma. Because all people have a common evolutionary history, and because we all learn behaviors and take part in the same society, it is only natural that people often fear the same things.

What does evolution have to do with it?

“While individuals are unique,” Dr. Dorfman explains, “there are fundamental similarities in our construction. From an evolutionary standpoint, our brains are wired with a protective alarm system that alerts us to potential threats.” This is what people commonly refer to as “animal instinct.” Humans want to avoid harm and death, so we avoid and fear whatever we think may cause that. That is why when people experience fear, they become “equipped with physiological responses (anxiety symptoms) to notify [them] of imminent danger.” Adrenaline starts pumping. There is the urge to flee, or maybe just freeze; anything that the human brain thinks may help someone get out of a dangerous situation.

How does the brain process fear?

The human brain is nothing short of incredible. Neuroscientists at MIT have found that “the human brain can process entire images that the eye sees for as little as 13 milliseconds.” So before the brain is even fully aware of the exact details of a situation, it is able to process it in some form. Dr. Dorfman asserts, “Before fully being able to process information through reason, our brains scan and detect environmental threats to physical safety and notifies the rest of the body to respond accordingly.” The brain immediately tags something as threatening or non-threatening, so when two different objects appear to be similar, the brain may erroneously treat them as if they are equally dangerous when they aren’t. Here are the signs you could have PTSD.

Why are people so afraid of spiders?

Bugs, insects, arachnids—these creatures are big sources of fear and phobias for many people. While some of them are poisonous, others are not. And yet, someone could be as afraid of stinkbugs (non-venomous) as they are of Black Widow spiders (venomous). Why? “Back in the day,” Dr. Dorfman says, “insects represented poisonous creatures whose infectious bites could lead to fatal injury. The brain may be predisposed to anxious responses to these ‘dangerous’ creatures.” So because the brain has learned to associate some spiders with injury or even death, that fear has evolved into a more generalized fear of all creatures that appear similar even if they are not dangerous.

How is fear genetic?

Sometimes fear is out of proportion to what the perceived danger actually is. In a nutshell, that is what people call anxiety. As with other mental disorders, researchers have found that anxiety disorders (and therefore fear) can be influenced by genetics. The Scientific American reports that in mice, fear can be “selectively bred into succeeding generations.” Dr. Dorfman affirms, “Because it is embedded in our DNA, its specific expression can be hereditary.” So fear is developed through the process of evolution, and then it can be passed down through bloodlines. We share common fears because fear literally spreads. Don’t miss these tips for understanding and managing anxiety and panic disorder.

How do we learn fear?

Growing up, children learn from their environment. A significant part of that environment is the people with whom they live, such as parents or other family members. “If a child observed a parent’s anxious response to insects,” Dr. Dorfman posits, “she quickly learns that insects are something to be afraid of, and may be at risk of developing [a phobia or] learning to be phobic.” Combine a genetic predisposition to fear and anxiety with learned anxious behavior and you’ve got a phobia. Here’s how one woman finally overcame her fear of needles.

How is fear related to trauma?

Dr. Dorfman says, “The mind absorbs and reminds us of previously experienced traumas—some of which manifest in phobias.” Trauma isn’t typically the root cause of phobias, but it can be if it is incredibly severe. The most obvious manifestation of this is in our emotional fears. For instance, some people fear making a close emotional connection with a new romantic partner when they have been emotionally traumatized in a similar, previous relationship. It’s the mind’s attempt to protect itself from further emotional pain, but this can often result in behavioral disorders which need treatment, as outlined in this article about attachment-related phobias in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

What are common emotional fears?

So a lot of people are afraid of external objects or creatures such as spiders, but what about internal emotional fears? Those are just as or even more common. That’s because humans don’t just feel physical pain, they also feel emotional pain. Dr. Dorfman says, “People also experience phobias related to their emotional security; fearing humiliation, shame, sadness, and emotional pain.” These are some of the root causes of emotional fears. What differs from person to person is how these fears manifest themselves. Social phobia or fear of public speaking, for instance, stems from fear of humiliation.

What other emotions are people afraid of?

A lot of concepts and feelings fall under the vast umbrella of emotional pain. Dr. Dorfman says, “As we interpret more deeply, most humans fear abandonment, isolation, and aloneness. Such phobias manifest in social phobia, fears of public speaking and fears of intimacy.”

Why do we have such strong emotional fears?

Some may ask, what is the point of fearing emotions if they don’t physically harm us? “As social beings who are reliant on others for survival, these emotional threats jeopardize our fundamental needs of acceptance and belonging,” says Dr. Dorfman. Evolutionarily speaking, social relationships have played a huge role in how humans have survived and developed over time. Feeling judged or outcast by others, then, is just as valid as any physical threat.

Is it O.K. to be afraid?

Yes. These 10 common fears—fear of spiders, heights, tight spaces, illnesses, abandonment, isolation, aloneness, humiliation, shame, and sadness—are common for a reason. Despite how different we sometimes seem to be, there are basic human traits that we all share. It is human nature to try to avoid danger. However, anxiety disorders, like phobias, can mean that fearful avoidance takes on a life of its own and affects a person’s ability to function. If your fear gets in the way of your everyday life, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. You can start with the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.