The Brain

From Creepy Clowns To The Dancing Plague – When Phobias Are Contagious

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Most of us have something we say we’re afraid of, whether it be spiders, needles, or something more unusual like zombies. But when push comes to shove, we get rid of eight-legged beasts, will have that injection, or manage to sit through an episode of The Walking Dead – albeit behind the safety of a sofa cushion.

Fear and worry are intrinsic to being human, and it is common in early childhood to develop some fears that can be troubling and upsetting. Many little ones will cry at night, saying they are afraid of the dark, or of the monster under their bed, but as adults we can just brush these thoughts off. Though there is usually no harm waiting to befall us, evolutionary theorists think that children are biologically predisposed to learn certain fears to protect themselves from danger. This explains some of the most common phobias, such as fear of insects, snakes and heights.

Fear directed at objects, events or situations – “phobias” – in childhood are perfectly normal. They come and go, rarely requiring special attention or intervention. The list of phobias appears to be limitless, quite literally ranging from A to Z: from anatidaephobia, the fear that a duck is watching you, to zelophobia, a fear of jealousy.


 Phobias only become clinically relevant if they occur at an inappropriate age – usually considered to be past 13 years old – and persist for six months or more, impacting significantly upon a person’s daily functioning. If this is the case they are referred to as “specific phobias”. Many specific phobias can be traced back to early triggering events, usually a traumatic experience at an early age. In childhood, the individual is unable to recognise that the fear is irrational. Even though evidence presented to them may show that there is no threat or danger, reasoning is rarely effective.

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