“Any object can turn into a source of phobia, since you can associate anything with death, the basis of all fears,” says Stephen Juan, Ph.D., an anthropologist and the author of Who’s Afraid of Butterflies?: Our Fears and Phobias Named and Explained ($18, amazon.com). Here, some top fears and why they haunt us.
These horror-film regulars can confound a child’s developing understanding of fantasy versus reality, according to psychologist Tamar Chansky: “Is it a person or not a person? Why doesn’t his face change?”
Sufferers may fear inhaling or choking on buttons or be repulsed by their shape or texture. “I’ve seen three kids with this fear,” says psychologist Dawn Huebner. “I successfully treated a boy who had to wear a uniform with buttons for baseball practice and just couldn’t.”
This is fear of one’s reflection—and not just on really bad hair days. Juan places mirrors in the top 50 phobias for adults. “Some people find their mirror image scary because it acts like a double and moves with them,” he says. “Others even believe their soul may be captured in a mirror.”
Seaweed (a type of thalassophobia, or fear of the sea)
A mere toe touch with this slimy stuff can bring on a wave of terror in sufferers. Why? “Because it’s been at the bottom of the sea, and who knows what it picked up down there,” says psychologist Donna Pincus. Repugnance plays a role in many phobias, thanks to our instinct to avoid germs.
Children fear feeling out of control if they get sick, or they worry about someone else throwing up on them. The phobia often forms at school. “There’s all this emergency activity. The teacher rushes in! The child is rushed down the hall to the bathroom!” says Chansky. Huebner notes a surge in calls about vomiting phobia in January and February, when kids are more likely to get sick.
See How to Overcome Fear for help handling these and other phobias.