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Which Phobia is Most Frightening?

VO: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Mark Sammut
We're all scared of something - right? But which of all the world's phobias is the most frightening of all? A fear of spiders? A fear of heights? A fear of food? There's a lot of scary stuff out there, but which phobia is the worst to have? And what even is a phobia in the first place? The fear factor doesn't disappear once Halloween is over, you know!
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Which Phobia is the Most Frightening?


While everyone experiences small, usually unnoticeable pangs of fear on a virtually daily basis, diagnosable phobias are actually quite rare. So, what separates a simple dislike from a genuine anxiety disorder? Phobias are defined by an irrational dread that, for anyone who doesn’t share the same fear, may seem disproportionate to the danger at hand. In most cases, whatever it is that’s causing the reaction poses practically no threat, but the sufferer can’t help feeling all wibbly-wobbly whenever they encounter it. Crucially, those with a phobia tend to prioritize not coming into contact with whatever triggers it, which can have a negative impact on that person's life.

In general terms, fear is an essential and natural emotion, and one that’s vital to the survival of any species. But how and why do phobias become such a thing? Research has so far failed to find a clear-cut cause, but they seem to stem from both biological and environmental influences. If a mother has arachnophobia, there’s a decent possibility that her children will also be scared of spiders. But that doesn’t mean that the shared anti-arachnid attitude is genetic, because the kids will’ve also likely been raised to think that spiders are the spawn of Satan. Overall, phobias are reportedly brought on by a mix of life experience, genes, and brain chemistry.

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic and overly paranoid; there’s a phobia for virtually everything. Since 1995, Phobialist.com has curated an especially extensive catalog, and has so far accumulated well over 500 entries. But, while such an index is impressive, it’s only set to grow. To provide today’s video with a structure that isn’t scary as hell, let’s imagine that a phobia's fear factor is determined based on three things; its prevalence in society, its daily impact, and whether its implications are dangerous. We’ll also be focusing on ‘simple’ or ‘specific’ phobias only, as in those which revolve around a particular object or event.

So, which of these phobias are the most common? In a trend that will surely surprise nobody, creepy crawlies tend to dominate at the top of the charts, with arachnophobia stealing most of the limelight. Most common spiders pose no particular danger to humans, but this hasn’t improved the public's opinion of the eight-legged web-spinners. Fears of snakes, dogs, and mice are also fairly universal – though not usually all at the same time!

Even if a species is harmless, the fundamental reasons why people fear them tend to be at least identifiable. After all, dogs and snakes are predators, so it’s almost natural to be wary around them. While things like cockroaches and rats are historically linked with the spread of disease, only a small percentage of them being actually dangerous. But, if someone focusses only on the scary aspects of something, then they’ll quickly be conditioned into fearing it.

Animal-based phobias are reasonably simple to sidestep, though – with the possible exception of dogs or birds. If you’re scared of snakes, don’t visit the reptile house. If you’re irrationally afraid of fish, steer clear of your local aquarium. It’s a shame that you’d miss out on these experiences, but the everyday impact on your life should be minimal. The same can’t be said for common fears like aviophobia, which might cause someone to drive for hours rather than catching a plane – despite the latter being the statistically safer option. A fear of heights is another that could throw up challenges at any given moment, be you driving across a bridge or attending a meeting on the top floor of an office block. And then there’s claustrophobia, a favourite for film and TV – but a nightmare for anyone who suffers from it when they’re faced with an elevator, a tunnel or even a photo booth.

Weather-based phobias present another convincing case for being the absolute worst. An aviophobe could catch a boat instead of a plane – and just put up with the extended journey time – but what’s an astraphobe supposed to do in a lightning storm? The North and South Poles reportedly experience the fewest lightning strikes on average, so you could move there – but that’d take you to all new levels of irrationality. Worse still, you could suffer from ombrophobia (a fear of rain), which would threaten to affect most days. Then there’s straight-up aquaphobia (the fear of water), or heliophobia (the fear of the sun) – both of which really do worsen every waking hour. If a phobia’s fear factor equates to how inescapable it is, then these would surely be contenders for the ‘most frightening’.

But there are others that, while inescapable to a point, could ultimately be health or life-threatening. Take trypanophobia, which is the fear of needles. Not only does this mean you’d never even consider getting a tattoo, but more importantly you might actively avoid visiting the doctor. Even a mild fear could motivate you against receiving an injection (even when you need one), while an extreme case could lead to you never stepping foot inside a hospital at all – because you know that needles are there. Imagine being uncontrollably scared of even simple medical treatments designed to improve your health – pretty frightening, right?

On the opposite side, those who visit their doctor too frequently might be suffering from mysophobia. While popular entertainment has a tendency to present germaphobes as a joke character, it’s far from a laughing matter if you are one. Symptoms include an aversion to physical contact with people and a preoccupation with cleanliness… So, not only does it significantly hamper your day-to-day life, but you really do eye everything with utmost suspicion – which can obviously make for a pretty unsettling existence.

All this talk of life also leads us into death. Sure, plenty of people feel uneasy about life’s ultimate mystery, and most require some time to accept that nothing lasts forever. But necrophobes become especially fixated with dead things and the act of dying. Necrophobia, or similar states like chronophobia – the fear of the passing of time – seem especially haunting. Not only can these anxieties be triggered by a variety of sources at any given moment, but they bring an existential element that’s lacking in other phobias.

Perhaps the scariest thing is that we’re still dealing in relatively common fears. But, the rarer types throw up some terrifying options, too. There’s cibophobia and hypnophobia, referring to a fear of food and sleep respectively, and also haemophobia – as in the fear of blood. That last one poses all levels of problems, depending on the severity of the fear. For some, it’s simply the sight of blood, for others it’s the very knowledge that it flows through their veins all the time. Again adding an existential element to the issue, it’s no wonder haemophobes are stereotypically known to faint.

While its classification as a ‘specific phobia’ isn’t quite as clear-cut, agoraphobia is another contender for the most crippling of all fears. Generally speaking, it’s the fear of open or crowded spaces, leading to the sufferer feeling as though they are trapped. But, as this particular problem is adaptable to all manner of places and situations, it’s especially unpredictable. Does its unpredictability make it the ‘most frightening’, though?

While there is no accepted measurement of fear, reverting back to our original criteria it’s clear that different phobias pose different problems. In terms of ‘prevalence in society’, animal phobias tend to dominate – especially spiders. But, the ‘daily impact’ of these creature dis-comforts probably doesn’t match other, all-encompassing, inescapable conditions like a fear of the sun. However, while Heliophobia could lead to a vitamin D deficiency, there are others which could directly impact your health. In this case, the implications of a phobia are definitely dangerous, which adds a whole new level to how frightening it is.

But, perhaps the scariest of all are those usually rare phobias which leave sufferers questioning their own selves. A fear of death; a fear of the future; a fear of your own body’s fundamental functions; all of these things affect everyday life, are almost impossible to switch off from, and can lead to perilous situations.

That said, fear is obviously an incredibly subjective emotion, and no one can truly determine whether one thing is scarier than another. It’s all down to personal preference – or lack of it – which is what makes phobias such a fascinating and frightening business. Typical or atypical, the problem comes when it’s irrational – which is when it’s advisable to seek a medical opinion. Whether it’s ticking clocks, wild dogs, or unruly clowns; no one should live in fear.
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