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Last Updated: Friday, 24 March 2006, 10:00 GMT
Why do people get phobias?
The Magazine answers...

Louise Arnold steers clear
A woman's fear of peas has made the headlines, but why do people develop phobias?

Louise Arnold can suffer a panic attack at the mere mention of peas. She flees restaurants if she sees peas on a plate, and avoids the frozen veg section in the supermarket.

The list of officially-recognised phobias is long and often bizarre - anablephobia is a fear of looking up, and genuphobia is a fear of knees.

1: fear of open spaces
2: fear of public embarrassment
3: fear of being in a car
Mental Health Foundation
An estimated 13% of the adult population will develop a phobia at some point in their life, according to one study. But why do people develop phobias?

It is all related to anxiety, which is a normal response to stress or danger and often called the "flight or fight" response. It involves adrenalin being quickly pumped through the body enabling it to cope with whatever comes its way.

Problems start when this response is out of proportion to the actual danger or is generated when there is no danger present. That is when it can become an anxiety disorder, of which phobias are a category.

There are several factors that can trigger such a disorder, according to the National Phobics Society (NPS):

  • stress
  • childhood environment
  • genetic predispositions
  • physical factors, such as thyroid problems
  • biochemical imbalances and changes in the levels of chemical messengers in the brain

    For some people it can be one of these factors that results in a phobia, while for others it can be a combination. It is also quite common for people to suffer from more than one phobia at the same time.

    While no one trigger is related to a particular phobia, often the more bizarre fears are caused by stress, while more common ones - such as the fear of spiders - are more likely to be linked to childhood environment.

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    "The woman with the pea phobia developed it after she had a baby, which can be a very stressful time," says Nicky Lidbetter, manager of the NPS.

    "Sometimes when people are at a difficult point in their lives, their subconscious attaches the stress they experience to something, like peas."

    But knowing the origins of an anxiety disorder doesn't help in dealing with a phobia. Treatment focuses on people controlling their anxiety rather than the anxiety controlling them.

    However, it can be reassuring for sufferers to know there are factors out of their control that may have contributed to their phobia.

    Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

    I have an incredible fear of boats. It's silly and irrational and I realise that, but the bigger the ship, the more terrified I am of the thought of it floating on water or even going out to sea. My stomach turns at the sight of tv adverts for cruises and oceanliners! I have no idea what brought on this phobia or how it developed, but it's there... luckily, there's not much need these days to board ships so it doesn't really affect my everyday life.
    Roddy Fraser, London

    I have extreme phobia for cats. Hence I always check before visiting anyone whether they have cats. I would not go near or be near to a cat. It can cause alot of anxiety in me, weeks of sleepless nights or even fall ill. Some people do not take the phobia seriously. Therefore it add further stress to me when joke about it.
    Christina Spybey, London

    I have an unusual phobia, of getting my hair cut. People think my hair is long because of my indie dress sense, but to be honest it is because I am scared to death of the chair and the scissors. I am shaking typing this. My last haircut was 12 months ago, when my flatmate took kitchen scissors to my head when I was asleep. I feel ridiculous but even therapy just won't work. What can I do?
    Chris McCall, Edinburgh

    I have a terrible fear of birds, feathers, and anything with wings. Walking around town squares in Europe is frightening and hellish for me - the thousands of pigeons seem like brainless assassins after my life. I detest moths too, especially the huge ones found in Asia. During a trip to the zoo I volunteered to pick up seven or eight huge reticulated pythons and sling them around my neck. However I refused to enter the butterfly aviary afterward. It was too scary.
    Ju-Lee Sandhu, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

    My big brother has a phobia of gravy. There seems to be no logic to his phobia, such as a traumatic childhood experience, but the mere mention of gravy sends him into a frenzy!
    Jo Traynor, Liverpool<

    I have a phobia of mould. I know how irrational it is - until I see some mould, then I run from the room shaking. Interestingly, I like mushrooms, as long as I can see them in a punnet, not when growing. I also get shaky at blue cheese. I agree about the stress aspect - when I'm under pressure my panic is far greater. I'm not mad. Honest.
    Katherine, London

    I'd like to comment, but I'm scared of computers.
    Tony Gallagher, Oamaru, New Zealand

    I am terrified of scarecrows and I have no idea why. I just find them truly hideous to behold.
    Matt, Kent

    I have a phobia of flamingos. If one comes on the television I normally retch. Luckily there aren't many that I come in contact with day to day. I think it might have started with the ones in Alice in wonderland when I was a child.
    Nadia, Brighton

    I have severe Globophobia - a fear of balloons. It makes shopping difficult when stores are giving away balloons to children, and it is practically impossible for me to go to a party without first checking if balloons will be part of the decoration.
    Clair, Southampton

    I am embarrassed to admit that I have a phobia of buttons. Even as a small child I hated being dressed in any items with buttons on them. I am getting better as I get older and can wear certain items of clothing but still seeing small white plastic buttons makes my stomach turn (even writing this made me feel a bit odd!)
    Yvonne, Wilton

    Baked beans, in fact just typing and thinking about it makes me want to vomit. I can't be in the same house as anyone eating them, the smell alone brings me out in a sweat.
    Elaine Green, Littlehampton

    I've feared carrots since a very young age. I put it down to them being orange with what appears to be green hair and those teeth like fangs.
    Nathan Walsh, Sheffield

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