Most people love, or at least politely tolerate, going to parties. Plastic cups, sugar cookies, and various kinds of dips are all components of friendly and familiar gatherings. But for voice actor Nickie Bryar, simple parties can be an anxiety-inducing, or even frightening, ordeal. That is because Bryar has long battled globophobia—a fear of balloons.

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A phobia is defined as an irrational or inexplicable fear of things most would not necessarily need to fear. The list of people’s particular fears is long and surprising, encompassing phobias like Papaphobia—a fear of the Pope—or omphalophobia—a fear of belly buttons.

But while those who suffer unique phobias are outside the mainstream, they certainly are not alone. Even Bryar’s fear of soft, colorful, Pixar-movie-inspiring balloons is not a total oddity, as the seemingly fearless Oprah Winfrey has also confessed to a fear of balloons.

As unusual as such phobias can be, the anxiety felt by those afflicted with any kind of phobia is very real. And though it may seem like there is no connection between one person’s dread of crossing a bridge and another person’s panic at the sight of cheese, a comprehensive look into these fears reveals more similarities than one might think.

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So don’t imagine yourself in a tight space, or hanging dozens of stories in the air, or getting crawled on by spiders, or face-to-face with a slithering mass of snakes: This is not a Fear Factor episode. This is a deep dive into some of the most bizarre phobias in the world.

Fear Factors

There are seemingly endless lists of fears that exist, covering literally everything from arachnophobia to zoophobia, and there are so many specific fears that it all seems impossible to believe. It requires a certain level of understanding of the effects of these fears to realize their validity. Urbo spoke with Carla Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist and writer who has specifically worked with individuals grappling with various kinds of fear.

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Manly makes it clear that despite the seemingly unrealistic nature of some of the most unique phobias, one should not discount their authenticity: “As odd as such fears (or any fears) may be to outsiders, the fears are very real to the sufferers. They feel trapped, embarrassed, and often paralyzed by their fears.” She explains that it requires “true compassion and skill” to discuss a phobia with an afflicted person.

Stranger Fears

The most difficult thing about many phobias is that they can impact people in day-to-day life. A more broadly held fear like, say, a fear of sharks, would only cause an issue while near or in the ocean. But something like Bryar’s globophobia can manifest itself in the simplest of circumstances. She shares with Urbo that these fears impact life events that are routine for most people: “My kids don’t have balloons at their parties. If I go to a party where there are balloons, I stand as far away from them as possible without drawing attention to my crazy.”

Pressed about New Year’s Eve, when balloons often rain down from the heavens, Bryar replies: “I stay in.”

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Plenty of other phobias can impact people’s routines without warning. Manly says some people have a fear of walking alone in public, a fear linked to agoraphobia (the fear of open spaces). She explains that these individuals can be calm when strolling with a friend or a dog alongside them, but “if walking alone, they fear that all eyes are on them.”

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In some cases, phobias can become truly debilitating. Emily Mendez is a former private practice psychotherapist, published mental health writer, and addiction specialist who has treated clients with various phobias. She tells Urbo how someone with odontophobia (also known as dentophobia: a fear of dentists) can impact their health: “[Someone] might be so afraid of visiting the dentist that they avoid all dentist care, even when they have severe dental problems, such as teeth that break off at the gum lines. Sometimes, the phobia is so severe that the person will avoid going for treatment even when it’s a dental emergency.”

Other phobias can be born out of technological advancement in our world. One such example Mendez brings up is nomophobia, a recently discovered fear of being without one’s mobile phone.

“Nomophobia refers to the fear of losing one’s mobile phone, not having a signal, or running out of battery,” she explains. While certainly many have a fear of losing their cell phone, an Iowa State study on the phobia defined four dimensions of nomophobia: “not being able to communicate, losing connectedness, not being able to access information and giving up convenience.”

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The study created a questionnaire that sought to differentiate the rational fear of losing one’s phone from the more anxiety-causing nomophobia. The only thing that can be more difficult than diagnosing a phobia is uncovering where it originated.

Where do these phobias come from?

As haunted houses and scary movies can attest, there is a formula for fear and what kind of things people intrinsically find frightening. But phobias are a different story. The origins of bizarre phobias are very complex while still tapping into the instinctive, scary part of our brain.

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“Phobias likely develop from a combination of factors, both psychological and genetic,” says Mendez. There is some evidence that genetics play a role in creating the right conditions for phobias to develop, but their origins remain incredibly complex.

“There’s really no straightforward answer,” notes Manly. However, she adds, “Trauma is often involved.”

According to Manly, it is in the early stages of human development that trauma can have a monumental impact on the brain and make the development of phobias more likely.

“When a person has been exposed to trauma or is simply sensitive to anxiety or fear, a phobia can result,” Manly says. She goes on to explain that a mind rocked by early trauma will impact children as they develop into adults, sowing the seeds for potential irrational fears.

Though phobias can occur from a perfect storm of genetic predisposition and trauma and lead to being afraid of “harmless” things like cheese or driving over bridges, Manly argues they all tap into a very simple human fear. “When you take it all down, it is a fear of not being safe,” she reveals. “That is the root of every fear I’ve ever encountered.”

Why Some Phobias Are So Weird

As mentioned, phobias are quite different from typical fears. Mendez gives insight into what can usually be classified as a fear: “Fears that are more universal, like a fear of snakes or spiders, are likely due to evolutionary factors. Being afraid of these things probably helped our ancestors survive.” So if someone tells you they have a phobia of tornadoes or alligator attacks, you could probably classify that as a standard fear because those are both pretty objectively scary things.

For something truly odd, take, for example, trypophobia: a fear of tiny holes. At face value, it is a strange thing to be afraid of, though there is a whole subreddit dedicated to posts of pictures that could shock, or in some cases, assist, those with trypophobia.

My morning coffee. Couldn’t even have one sip 🤮 from r/trypophobia

Phobias, especially bizarre ones like trypophobia, are typically the result of much more complicated brain activity. Manly explains that what can happen is for a legitimate trauma to happen, say like a robbery from a home. The mind could be overwhelmed by the fear that comes along with someone breaking into a home; of being unsafe. So instead, the brain will pick up some random detail—perhaps a movie where a burglar wears a bandana—and fixate on it, creating a phobia of men in bandanas.

“The phobia, strangely, offers a specific ‘place’ for the fear to take hold—almost as if it becomes velcro for the fear,” Manly says.

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So a phobia of small holes would usually not be fear of the holes themselves, but of some other greater fear—perhaps a childhood encounter with bees or a particularly traumatic bout of the chicken pox.*

*Some on the internet like to take trypophobia threads to an extreme by manipulating images for a result that would creep just about anyone out. For example, proceed with caution should you ever try to Google image search “trypophobia chicken pox.”

Forever afraid?

The good news is that, just as the brain created these phobias, the brain also has the power to overcome them. The bad news is that it is significantly more work. Mendez and Manly both say treatment can help people overcome, or at least manage, their phobias. Mendez reveals one such method called systematic desensitization.

“With systematic desensitization, the person is gradually exposed to things that cause anxiety,” she explains. “Then, they are taught coping skills to help manage the anxiety.” She cites, for example, a dentophobia patient who would take small, manageable steps towards feeling comfortable in a dentist’s office before finally undergoing a dental procedure.

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Manly says it is not certain that everyone with a phobia will be able to train their brain to not be afraid anymore. “There are some people who make great strides and overcome fears,” she says, “and then there are some people who live with them and are debilitated by them for the rest of their lives.”

She says a number of factors can contribute to overcoming a phobia, including a patient’s neurological makeup and what kind of treatment or psychotherapy they receive.

One very helpful tool Manly also mentions is the support group. Finding others who have faced the same fears helps those afflicted feel like they are not alone. “You end up feeling validated,” says Manly. Those with fears can find a partner or community to help them in the long journey to feeling safe again.

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While these phobias can make people feel like oddities or outsiders, Manly stresses that there’s no reason for those kinds of characterizations. She puts it very simply: “Something happened in your psyche, something got a little broken, and you can be fixed. You will be okay.”

It’s a nice reminder for those with bizarre phobias that these things can be overcome, leaving them plenty of time to get scared by good old-fashioned horror films.