A butterfly lands on your shoulder. In you, it might produce a gasp of wonder and a smile, but in someone else, it might draw out a bloodcurdling scream.
Click start to play the Weekend Crossword, where you can identify various kinds of phobias.
We might laugh away someone’s exaggerated reaction to such situations, but their phobia (in this case, called lepidopterophobia) is real, and is classified as a type of anxiety disorder. Some level of fear and anxiety is considered a normal emotional response to threats, but with phobias, people can spend large amounts of time thinking and worrying about the subject of their fear, and avoid places or activities where they might encounter it.
There exist over 400 phobias. Some are common, like the fear of heights (acrophobia) or the fear of spiders (arachnophobia), but others are far rarer and may seem bizarre. For instance, American celebrity Christina Ricci has a fear of indoor plants (botanophobia) – she is reported to have said that touching a dirty houseplant feels like torture. And American film director Alfred Hitchcock lived with a fear of eggs (ovophobia) – the seemingly innocent act of cracking an egg made him gag. There’s even a fear of developing a phobia – phobophobia!
The first reference to phobias comes from the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. In his book, called The Seventh Book of Epidemics, he described the condition in a man named Nicanor. Whenever Nicanor joined in the community’s festivities, he would become terrified of the flute played by musicians. Hippocrates wrote: “When the piper began to play, the music immediately threw him into such a great fright that he was not able to bear the disorder of it.”
While Hippocrates didn’t come up with the term ‘phobia’, it was a Roman doctor named Celsius, who used the word hydrophobia nearly 500 years later to describe someone who seemed to be terrified of water due to rabies.
Luckily, the right treatment can help abate people’s irrational fears. One method that’s been successful is exposure therapy, a type of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), which exposes you to your phobia little by little, over and over again, until you conquer the phobia.