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The Psychologist's Guide to Fear

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Always do what you are afraid to do.” This quote seems very bold and inspirational. However, there is one problem...what if you just cannot?

That is the case with a phobia. When someone is irrationally afraid of something, they often are unable to do or think about their phobia at all. When we have a phobia we often can even feel defined by it.

For example, a college friend of mine developed a serious fear of writing essays. Every time she tried to write an essay, she would feel physical pain. Why? Her phobia was affecting her deeply and she felt like she could not overcome it.

We are all scared of something. So, it seems impossible to face our fears and to be bold when we seem to lack the ability to do so. However, there is something important that we need to know.

What we fear is not who we are.

So, what do our fears tell us about ourselves? According to Psychology, there is a lot to be learned about ourselves and our personalities through our phobias.


A quick google search can lead to a huge list of phobias. My favorite one would definitely be chorophobia, the fear of dancing. I really don’t know how people could fear dancing but some people seriously do! This just goes to show the variety of fears found in people today.

So, what is a phobia?

A phobia is “an overwhelming and unreasonable fear of an object or situation that poses little real danger but provokes anxiety and avoidance.”

Typical symptoms of phobias can include nausea, trembling, rapid heartbeat, feelings of unreality, and being preoccupied with the fear object. Phobias are long-lasting with intense physical and psychological reactions, often even not allowing people to function normally.

But, we have to wonder, why does this matter? The answer is that phobias have a startling correlation with personality.

Here are some examples:

  • People who fear spiders may have an especially high disgust emotion. Jennifer Lawrence, although incredibly brave on screen remarked on her experience while shooting in a Hawaiian jungle. ”Everybody told me there were no spiders, so when I saw three, I started crying...I think I am a legitimate alcoholic. No, what’s it called? An Arachnophobic.”

  • People who fear snakes may be well-read or have higher memory retention than most people.

  • People who fear heights may be detailed-oriented perfectionists who hate losing control. One example of this would be Jennifer Aniston, who faced an almost-accident on her fiftieth birthday on an airplane that left her scarred for life!

  • People who are afraid of needles are deeply intuitive and in touch with their instincts.

  • People who are especially concerned with germs and bacteria may share some obsessive-compulsive traits. This is something that Howie Mandel definitely feels. "I'm always on the verge of death in my head...Otherwise, I would spend the day — as I have in the past in my life — in the men's room rubbing and scrubbing and scalding."


These are all just examples. To understand this, we must look at the Big 5 of Personality:

  1. Openness

  2. Conscientiousness

  3. Extraversion

  4. Agreeableness

  5. Neuroticism

The Big 5 is basically the five major personality traits that psychologists look for. The main one involved in phobias is neuroticism.

Neuroticism (a.k.a Emotional Stability) relates to one’s emotional stability and degree of negative emotions. According to research, many disorders such as simple phobia, social phobia, agoraphobia, panic disorder, and OCD, for example, are associated with high neuroticism. Neuroticism, in particular, was related to the acuity of a disorder. Neuroticism is practically the reason for phobias.

Here are some examples:

- OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) was associated with low openness to experience.

- Low levels of extraversion, conscientiousness, openness, and agreeableness were related to MDD (depression), social phobia, agoraphobia, and dysthymia.

- Low levels of extraversion and high levels of neuroticism were related to several of the disorders and social anxiety.

Factors for Personality:

However, there are basically three main factors that affect personality:

  1. Genetics

  2. Culture

  3. Experiences

First of all, genetics affects personality and so affects phobia. Researchers have found that there is one specific gene that results in higher anxiety-related personality trait scores. The conclusion of this research was that genes and neuroticism are related.

Secondly, culture also affects personality. Exhibit A: Samoa. In Samoa, children tend to be ignored until they are married. Therefore, Samoan children either became aggressive to gain attention or passive due to the lack of affection and love from their significant others. Although there are two routes here, there is a definite high level of neuroticism here and probably low levels of agreeableness and extraversion. Culture does define personality. High levels of neuroticism and low levels of agreeableness and extraversion are also linked with phobias.

Lastly, experiences are powerful as well. Children who are abused believe that they are less worthy than others because of the way they were treated. So, it is very likely for them to have low self-esteem and live with shame for the rest of their lives. They may, therefore, become introverted. Low levels of extraversion and high levels of neuroticism are related to phobias.

Personality and Phobia:

So, personality and phobias are related according to science. What does this mean practically? It means that what we fear has a deep impact on us. And, our personality, has a deep impact on our fears.

This does not mean that our fears and uncontrollable! Quite the opposite actually. This means that we must conquer our fears! If we don’t, we can impact our personality traits forever. Additionally, since personality points us to the root cause of the phobias, we can begin facing our fears.

Here are some examples:

  • If you are someone with OCD, you can start to grow your openness to experience by trying new things. You may begin with something small that you are not too afraid of and slowly transition into facing your fears. As you become more open, your levels of obsession will also begin to decrease!

  • If you are someone with social phobia, agoraphobia, or a similar disorder, you can begin by trying to find enjoyable social situations and beginning to get comfortable in them. It may begin with just one trust friend but can grow into being with groups of people.

  • If you are someone with anxiety, you can begin journaling or talking with the people around you about your feelings. As you start to face your feelings, you will start to face your fears.

We can begin combatting our fears through the root causes found within our personality. As we change the negative aspects, we can begin to create a beautiful freedom to live with.


How do I personally combat my fears and begin facing them? I combat them with my identity. I know that I am God’s creation. I know that no matter what my genes or my past says about me that I am ultimately a child of the King. So, when I get scared, I look to Him to save me. I would encourage you to do the same.

So, Emerson, maybe I will do what I am afraid to do!

Works Cited:

1. All That's Interesting. “Ten Completely Bizarre And Completely Weird Phobias.” All That's Interesting, All That's Interesting, 18 Jan. 2018,

2. Bienvenu, O. Joseph, et al. “Anxiety and Depressive Disorders and the Five‐Factor Model of Personality: A Higher‐ and Lower‐Order Personality Trait Investigation in a Community Sample.” The Canadian Journal of Chemical Engineering, Wiley-Blackwell, 1 Sept. 2004,

3. Cherry, Kendra, and Steven Gans. “A To Z: List of Phobias, From the Strange to the Common.” Verywell Mind, Verywellmind, 18 Aug. 2017,

4. “Does Culture Affect Our Personality? - Individual Traits and Culture.” Explorable - Think Outside The Box - Research, Experiments, Psychology, Self-Help,

5. Fritscher, Lisa. “Certain Factors May Increase the Likelihood That a Phobia Will Develop.” Verywell Mind, Verywellmind, 22 Sept. 2018,

6. “PsycNET.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, Feb. 2000,

7. Sen, Srijan, et al. “Meta‐Analysis of the Association between a Serotonin Transporter Promoter Polymorphism (5‐HTTLPR) and Anxiety‐Related Personality Traits.” The Canadian Journal of Chemical Engineering, Wiley-Blackwell, 13 Jan. 2004,

8. Taylor, Kate. “8 Common Phobias And What They Say About Your Personality.”, 22 Sept. 2017,

9. “What Are the Big Five Personality Test Traits? - Learn All about the Theory.” 123test, 10 Sept. 2018,


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