Everyone’s afraid of something—or a lot of something. But fear isn’t the same thing as a true phobia.
“A phobia consists of a persistent fear or avoidance of a specific stimulus,” says Kate Wolitzky-Taylor, Ph.D., an associate faculty member with the Anxiety and Depression Research Center at UCLA. “Usually the stimulus is a thing or a situation—like bees or heights.” But there’s a second component to phobias. “In addition, the fear causes significant distress or somehow impairs the person’s life,” Wolitzky-Taylor says.
So maybe you get creeped out by snakes or tight spaces—both of which are common, she says. Your fear may rise to the level of a phobia if you can’t even see snakes on TV without losing sleep, or you have to quit your job because getting to your office requires that you ride in a cramped elevator.
Where do these phobias come from? Your DNA may play a role. Wolitzky-Taylor says many people have genes that raise their risk for anxiety-related disorders—an umbrella term that includes phobias. But even if you don’t have those phobia genes, you can develop one through learning or “conditioning.” For example, if your parents always told you to be fearful of spiders, that could snowball into a phobia—especially if you also had a negative experience with a spider.
Avoiding the thing that scares you can also increase its power over you. “Avoidance strengthens anxiety and keeps it going, and that’s a recipe for phobia,” Wolitzky-Taylor says. Quite literally, we can be afraid of just about anything. Keep reading to learn about the weirdest phobias out there.
Taphophobia is the fear of being buried alive. Research suggests it arose (and probably peaked) during the 1700s at a time when the plague was rampant, and people feared doctors or medical professionals would mistakenly pronounce them dead. Taphophobia was such a phenomenon that escapable “safety coffins” were a thing, and corpses were often stored for long periods before burial to ensure they wouldn’t wake up.