We all have things that make our hair stand on end and get our hearts pounding with fear. As I explain in my new book, The Other Side of Normal [William Morrow, $27.99], we can thank our evolutionary ancestors for that. As a result of their struggles to survive, we now have circuits in our brains dedicated to sensing and avoiding danger. And fear is the emotional state that keeps us safe in a dangerous world. Fear is good. Except when it's not. I'm often asked what the difference is between a fear and a phobia. The answer has to do with how excessive the fear is and how much of a problem it causes in your life. A true phobia -at least in the sense psychiatrists and psychologists use the word--is an intense and persistent fear that you recognize is irrational but that you can't ignore. A fear becomes a phobia when it makes you avoid the thing you fear and fills you with terror when you can't. And to be a phobia it has to interfere with your life in some way.
Phobias are special in two ways: first, they are among the most common psychiatric disorders, affecting more than 10 percent of the population. And, second, they are perhaps the most curable. Behavior therapies that desensitize people to their irrational fears can often cure phobias in a matter of weeks.
As I note in my book, the popular press has a fondness for coming up with names of esoteric fears. Stick the word "phobia" onto any Greek or Latin root and presto-- you've got a disorder: homichlophobia (fear of fog); chronophobia (fear of time); socerophobia (fear of in-laws); triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number thirteen) and so on. But as someone who's been treating patients with anxiety disorders for nearly twenty years, I can tell you that these are not major public health problems. I've never seen a case of metrophobia (fear of poetry), let alone hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia (fear of long words).
So what are the most common irrational fears and phobias? Terrorism? Cancer? Commitment? Nope. According to research studies of the U.S. population, the top fears and phobias are closely tied to the kinds of threats our ancestors had to worry about. Our brains are tuned to pick up these fears more easily than any others. So here are the top 10.