How Fears and Phobias Change as We Age

Health Professional
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Childhood fears tend to be age-specific and fairly predictable. As a child gets older, the nature and intensity of those fears often diminish, but sometimes the fears do follow us into adulthood. (And while many adults leave behind common childhood fears, most of us never leave behind the memory of those fears.) Here’s what we know about the changing patterns of fears and phobias over a lifespan.

Childhood fears

  • Very young babies can show fear. A sudden noise or loss of support will result in what’s known as a startle, or Moro, reflex. This involves rapid opening and closure of the arms and, usually, crying.

  • From about six months, children may show fear of strangers, heights, masks, and being separated from parents.

  • From the age of 2, children begin to comprehend their lack of control over many situations. This, coupled with a developing imagination, may result in, for example, fears of imaginary creatures, thunder, trains, or large animals.

  • From the age of 3, active imagination is well established. It becomes a fearful time for many children, with monsters, burglars, being alone, the dark, and scary places high on the list of fears.

  • From the age of 5, fears become more concrete in nature. Five-year-olds will fear getting lost, or hurting themselves, or losing their parents.

  • Six and 7-year-olds will often merge a developing sense of reality with a still-active imagination. Natural disasters, things living in the attic, and witches and ghosts are common fears. From around the age of 7 onward, anxieties tend to shift more in the direction of activities at school, natural events, and social situations.

Note that I've referred to children’s fears, not phobias. This is because the onset, nature, and duration of those fears are both developmental and predictable. A phobia is a disproportionate fear of an object or situation, and while children may show fear that is out of proportion to actual danger, they probably don't know this at the time. A fear that doesn’t diminish, or that follows the person into adulthood, would most certainly be considered a phobia.

Adult phobias

Adults typically develop phobias between the ages of 15 and 25. The National Institute of Mental Health's statistics point to 19 million people, or 8.7 percent of the U.S. population, being affected by specific phobias. The focus for specific phobias is typically dental or medical procedures, animals, heights, public transportation, flying, elevators, and thunder.

Older adults

Older adults are less likely to develop phobias. However, as professor Kevin Gourney points out (1) acrophobia – a fear of heights – may develop in later life whereas before it was absent. Gourney attributes this, in part, to a deteriorating sense of balance as we age. He also says that many older adults have people in their lives who may depend on them, and this can increase  worries about the possibility of falling and being less able to meet commitments.

As we age, we produce much less adrenaline, which can cause racing hearts and dizziness. This means the intense fears we may have experienced in youth no longer trouble us as much. However, older people often experience a greater sense of vulnerability, so things like heights or big crowds become more of an issue.** Treatments**

Phobias tend to be very responsive to treatments and these are usually readily available and inexpensive. For many people, a decent self-help program can also be highly effective.

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Sources:

Gournay. K (2015) The Sheldon Short Guide To Phobias and Panic. Sheldon Press. London