The History of Phobias

Human behavior is not always logical. Sometimes we do things we’ve promised ourselves that we would absolutely not do—no siree! I won’t reach for another cookie today. Nope! No way! … and we watch our hands reach up and snag that chocolate chip cookie anyway.

One of the strange things our minds can do is to become afraid of things that we logically know are not dangerous. That little garter snake can’t hurt me! Getting a shot is safe—nothing to faint about! Airplanes are safe! Right?

Tell that to your mind. The fact is, many of us have strong, even uncontrollable fear reactions to harmless (or just slightly threatening) things. These reactions are uncomfortable and may even disrupt our lives. These reactions are called phobias.

Most of the time, people define a phobia with the phrase “fear of ___” [fill in the fear]. Most phobias have technical terms that start with a Greek or Latin phrase and end in the suffix -phobia, as in ophidiophobia (fear of snakes), trypanophobia (fear of injections), or aviophobia (fear of flying).

A Look at Phobias in History 

Phobias are actually rich, varied, and complex. We know that people have had phobias for thousands of years. But it’s only been recently that we’ve known much about those fears—or even known enough to call them by the term phobias.

The first written reference to phobic problems that we have is in the works of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (470-410 B.C.E.). Hippocrates wrote about the many ailments and problems of his patients, and we can still read many of his volumes of observations today.

In one his works (called The Seventh Book of Epidemics), Hippocrates described a condition in a man named Nicanor.

Whenever Nicanor went out drinking, he would get terrified of the flute (or maybe the flute music?) played by the musicians. As 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.” (Oddly, the flute music only bothered Nicanor at night—for some reason, in the daylight he was fine.)

But Hippocrates didn’t actually come up with the term phobia. That word wasn’t used until nearly 500 years later, when a Roman doctor, Celsus, used the word hydrophobia (literally, water fear) to describe someone who seemed to have a horror of water due to rabies. (People with advanced rabies may have tremendous thirst but be unable to drink and averse to water.)

But where did the Roman sawbones Celsus get the term phobia in the first place? From a Greek god.

Phobos was the son of Aries, the Greek god of war. The story goes that Phobos was a frightening and formidable guy—so much so that warriors would paint his picture on their shields to give their enemies a real fright and to get them to run away in terror. So a phobic reaction resembles someone terrified of something.

The first relatively modern use of the word phobia wasn’t until 1786, when (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) an unknown writer in the Columbian Magazine defined the word as meaning “A fear of an imaginary evil, or an undue fear of a real one.”

The word doesn’t pop up again in print (as far as we know) until 1801, but by the late 1800s, people were starting to use the term a lot.

In the late 1800s, medical scientists were busy creating clear, scientific categories of psychological problems.

In our modern era, accustomed as we are to knowing the psychological facts about ourselves and others (for example, are you an introvert or an extrovert? you probably have an opinion about the subject!), it may surprise you to know that just over a hundred years ago, there were no clear, tidy categories for psychological problems. So your phobia might have been ignored or misunderstood as some vague kind of craziness, but nobody would have been able to tell you much about it.

That all began to change as doctors started to recognize that many psychological problems that seemed to be quite different from each other were, in fact, the same basic problem. One person might be too scared to leave their house, another merely avoided public speaking, and a third would not even dream of going into their garden for fear of snakes.

In 1895 Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), a Viennese neurologist who founded the science of psychoanalysis, noticed that while some things squick (gross out) most people at least a little (such as snakes, death, or getting sick), other things only bother a few people (such as fear of leaving the house). Years later, Freud wrote about a little boy named Hans who, after being terrified by a horse in the street, developed a strong fear of horses. (Freud believed that the fear was actually, unconsciously, a fear of the boy’s father, related to his loving feelings about his mother.) Other researchers of the time also began to speculate that phobias were distinct mental conditions.

Many modern psychoanalysts believe that psychological problems such as phobias can be caused by conflicts in the mind—usually conflicts that the person is not even aware they are having. So a phobia could be caused by a clash of desires and fears that were too uncomfortable for the person to let themselves be consciously aware of … so the feelings would “go underground” and emerge as an apparently pointless problem such as a phobia.

But it wasn’t until 1947 that phobias became a separate diagnostic category in the International Classification of Diseases. (They were classified by the American Psychiatric Association in 1951.)

In the 1960s, it was observed that phobias basically divide themselves into three rather different kinds or categories: agoraphobia, social phobia, and specific phobias. That set the stage for the phobia classifications that we still use today.

We now know much more about phobias and similar conditions than we did in ancient times—even more than we knew just a few decades ago. In particular, we’ve come to understand much more about the kinds of biological and psychological processes that can cause phobias.

As you’ll see (or you will if you’ll buy my book), phobias make a great deal of sense from the perspective of survival. In fact, it may be that the same things that create phobias also ensured that our species survived long enough so that you could be reading this!

Adapted from The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Phobias, copyright 2009, by Greg Korgeski, Ph.D.

Getting oriented

Once upon a time, psychologists were supposed to keep their mouths shut.  It was an era of mysteries, confusion, a time of just emerging from the dark, murky world of ghosts and mysterious maladies, and for a time the only torch lighting the day out of the dark cavern was the work of Sigmund Freud.  Which was actually a huge improvement over the options which came before him, when depressed persons had the options of suffering or becoming novelists or drinking themselves to death.

But over time, Freud’s idea that people often need basically a good listener who doesn’t jump in with all sorts of unwanted advice, became distorted.  Shrinks started to believe that doing things like actually giving someone advice was a bad thing.  This went to absurd links — perhaps peaking when prominent psychologists move to revoke the membership from the American Psychological Association of one of the pioneering psychologists of the self-help field, Dr. Joyce Brothers, just because she answered people’s questions and tried to help in a more active way than mumbling “uh huh” every twenty minutes.

Eventually, common sense prevailed.  Building not just on the discoveries (which strictly speaking, weren’t all bad) of the European masters like Freud, we began to apply the findings of a more modern science to our understanding of the human mind, human relationships, and even to how our minds and bodies affect each other.

It’s been nearly a century and a half since the first psychology laboratories were established (by Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig, and William James at Harvard), and in that time whole libraries have grown up to contain our findings.  In the spirit of a true “Renaissance” (a rebirth or rediscovery of knowledge), we can now benefit from the best thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome, the philosophers and novelists and spiritual pioneers of the past 3000+ years, but most especially, from the discoveries and innovations of modern behavioral, cognitive behavioral, and neuropsychological researchers and practitioners.

Whether it’s how to keep your brain functioning through the lifespan, to protect and ehnahce your physical functioning or athletic performance, how to understand and connect effectively with others, how to reduce a depression or a phobia, or how to manage your career, there is a huge amount of information out there to help you.

In my work, I meet daily with people teetering on the edge of permanent disability (my clinical practice is mostly doing psychological evaluations and consulting with agencies and with businesses and organizations.)  Often, people have been relying on rather passive, antique methods of coping, such as hoping the latest medication from their primary physician will somehow “kick in,” or maybe just relying on alcohol or drugs to ease the pain of living.  But seldom do people have even the vaguest familiarity with highly effective psychological/behavioral ways to reduce chronic pain, to cope with a depressed mood, to cope with a severe phobia that keeps them housebound, or to be more effective in their career, business, marriage, or parenting skills.

I’ve wanted to set up a blog about phobias, which I’m supposed to do to let folks know about my phobia book. (I have one on the topic of social intelligence.)  But I’ve been writing some stuff on depression and other topics, and have ideas for a variety of other books and writing projects with similar themes of “you can take control of your own psychological functioning, at least some of the time.” (I’m actually a kind of “how to manage your life” nerd.)  So instead of doing scattered blogs, I’m doing a single one now, merging some other material here.

Because to a large extent, you can approach a depression, weight loss, interpersonal skills at work, anxiety control, flirting, or “getting things done” in very much the same way.  If you become an expert in managing one part of your behavior and life, you can use most of the same tools for the other areas as well.

That’s what I want to share with you in this blog.