The Science of fear


Alyssa Wentz

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The Science of fear

Walking through aisles of stores during the Halloween season people can find decorations, costumes and candy. For most this would be a spooky and exciting experience.

For this writer, it is nothing but terrifying and horrific.

My entire life I have had a phobia of masks ? plastic, rubber, paper ? all of them. Exposure leaves me anxious and crying with my heart racing as I run away as fast as possible. Avoiding Halloween aisles has become a yearly habit which is mostly successful, but when a random mask is misplaced, the fear is reintroduced.

Debilitating, horrific, and excessive: these words describe the feelings of fear that come with having a phobia. Affecting all ages, genders and walks of life; phobias are a mental ailment that hinders a person's day-to-day life.

Phobias are a fear of objects or situations that may seem silly, but to the people afflicted, they are nothing but real.

"Phobias are rational and irrational, but either way they are a fear," said Ric Ferraro, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of North Dakota. "It is a fear of an object, person or place that causes discomfort."

A defining aspect of phobias is their ability to affect a person's daily life, restrict behavior and/or cause harm.

"Because of the discomfort, people could choose not to leave their house or avoid situations where they would be exposed to their fear," said Ferraro. "An example would be people who are scared of the number 13, they will avoid the 13th floor of a building, they won't go down streets that have the number 13 in it, and they won't walk by houses that have the number 13 on them."

From heights to elevators, colors to airplanes, phobias can range from understandable to completely irrational, but the fear is real and can cause much distress.


"Humans are born with types of emotions, but fear is an emotion that needs to be associated with something in order to be learned," said Ferraro. "They are learned through association with some object, either positive of negative but mostly negative."

Even the strangest types of phobias are usually tied to past experiences.

"Fears of inanimate objects or colors start to get really interesting," said Ferraro. "The fear of the color green for example, when someone was little they could have fallen down, got green grass on their clothes, and their mom or dad yelled at them so now they associate fear with the color green."

My association between fear and masks began by simply being startled by them in stores. When I would turn around I would jump at the sight of a scary mask in my face. This fear has followed me now into adulthood.

While some associations are remembered, others could have been forgotten. These fears stem from an unconscious memory.

Phobias can also be tied to anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorders. If something happens different than planned or things are out of order a phobic episode can be triggered.


"One effective treatment is exposure therapy," said Ferraro. "We would look at what the person is afraid of and slowly expose them to it. Over time, your fear will be reduced and it will no longer affect your behavior."

If someone is afraid of spiders one possible scenario might be starting out by showing them a picture of a spider. Next they would move on to actually being in the presence of a spider in a cage where it cannot jump or bite. Then eventually they would let the spider out of the cage, let it walk on their hand or arm, and maybe even touch the spider. This is called successive approximation.

While treatment is a viable option, it only deems itself necessary when the fear causes the patient to change their day-to-day life and restricts behavior.

"If it affects your behavior where you cannot leave the house for fear of exposure to the thing you're afraid of then clearly there is a problem that needs to be addressed," said Ferraro.

Alyssa Wentz University & Public Affairs student writer

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