Book Excerpt: 'Click'

Specific phobias are entirely different, and truly demonstrate their unique nature. It's estimated that more than 18 million Americans over the age of eighteen suffer from specific fears, more than 8.7 percent of the U.S. population. There are several categories of specific fears, from animal phobias (spiders, mice, bunny rabbits, which shows up toward the end of the list), to situational phobias (flying, tunnels, bridges), to environmental phobias (storms, heights), to "other." "Other" is actually the most interesting group. As I wade through the sixteen hundred different "fear of" queries, I'm struck by just how individual our fears are. While the social anxiety around being with someone and the anxiety around being alone make up the head of the query stream, the long list of specific phobias makes up the long tail or unique set of phobia searches. Getting past more common fears, like the fear of flying, snakes, and clowns, reveals some truly bizarre specific fears. Departing from the ontology developed by mental health professionals, I've developed my own grouping for these oddities of anxiety, ordered by popularity.

Fear of different body parts appears numerous times within the list, from what appears to be a not entirely uncommon fear of being "touched on the neck," to fear of hair, teeth, skin, to the unique fears of elbows, feet, belly buttons, and more specifically the fear of "belly button lint," which may be an extension of the more popular "fear of dust." Our Internet searches also demonstrate the isolation of our society and our fear of other cultures, in fears that are hybrids between social and specific anxiety. Societal fear searches include queries such as "fear of German things," "fear of the French people," "fear of Mexicans," and "fear of Chinese culture."

If I were to guess, I would say that fears of subjects of study are harbored by our school-aged children, with "fear of math" topping the list, followed by "fear of biology" and "fear of physics," and very specific fears such as the "fear of the theory of relativity." While I haven't previously thought of my apprehension around Einstein's theory, terms like "time dilation" are certainly capable of causing me some unease.

Finally there are those fears that just defy categorization, such as the multiple occurrences of "fear of fear," also known as phobophobia. Are some of us so debilitated by the possibility of acquiring a phobia that the fear of having a fear itself becomes our primary fear?

I struggle to figure out the basis for some of the odd fears that show up in the tail of the fear search queries. Common causes for specific phobias include a past traumatic experience or a learned response. While the fear of the number 13 is certainly understandable, given the superstition attached to that number, what could possibly be a past traumatic experience or learned response that would cause someone the "fear of capital letters" or the "fear of odd numbers"?

Given the vast collection of fears that we search for, in some ways it's comforting to know that so many of us suffer the fear of something, in some cases rational, in others seemingly irrational. One of the fears that didn't surface in the list is the fear of the unknown. That's interesting given that one of the most popular queries is a quest for "how to" information. Perhaps since the explosion of information available on the Internet, the ratio of known to unknown has been on a rapid decline.

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