Sure, there are plenty of things for a reasonable person to be afraid of -- bomb-planting terrorists, venomous snakes, oncoming traffic. But people with phobias are afraid of things that seem harmless to most everyone else -- such as driving through a tunnel or eating in public. These experiences don't just fill a phobic with dread, they also trigger a debilitating physiological reaction, including shortness of breath and a rapid heartbeat.
Experts believe that roughly one in 10 people is tormented by an overpowering, nonsensical fright of some sort, according to psychology writer Francis Joseph Turner. The most garden-variety phobia, suffered by as many as half of all phobics, is agoraphobia, the fear of open places. Other common phobias include the fears of heights (acrophobia) and of spiders (arachnophobia), writes Kevin Brewer in his book "Clinical Psychology." But mental health experts have documented cases of much rarer and more peculiar fears. Here are 10 of the weirdest.
10: Fear of Vegetables
When former President George H.W. Bush banned broccoli from Air Force One because he didn't like it, the American public was amused. But for people suffering from lachanophobia, the fear of vegetables is no laughing matter. In "The Encyclopedia of Phobias, Fears and Anxieties," lachanophobia is defined as a fear of certain plants, or a broader fear of eating things that have grown in the ground. People who fear pollution in the air or water may also fear eating vegetables.
Here's an example: In 2009, The Telegraph, a British newspaper, reported on the sad case of Vicki Larrieux, a 22-year-old college student for whom the sight of a sprout, a carrot or even a single pea caused a panic attack. The precise origin of Larrieux's phobia is unclear, but she told the newspaper that she'd felt this way about vegetables since childhood. "Every time I would see vegetables, not just on my plate, but anywhere, I would get feelings of panic, start sweating and my heart rate would shoot up," she explained. Oddly, judging from the Telegraph's description, she's afraid only of certain types of plant-based foods, and is able to eat potatoes, fruit and cereal made from grains.
9: Fear of Tight Clothing
German dictator Adolf Hitler reportedly had tailors make his uniforms in a bigger size than he required because he had an irrational fear that his clothing would strangle him, according to the Los Angeles Times. But unfortunately, the paranoid German dictator isn't the only documented case of vestiphobia, the irrational fear of clothing.
Usually vestiphobics simply feel anxious about clothing they perceive as fitting too snugly and refuse to wear such garments. But in extreme cases, they develop an aversion to clothing of any sort, and may even become recluses just to avoid wearing garments.
And here's another an interesting twist on vestiphobia: In a 2011 article in the medical journal Grand Rounds, Singapore-based physician Dr. Jason Yongsheng Chan described a 21-year-old male soldier with no history of mental illness or fearfulness who, during basic training, suffered a panic attack whenever he donned a protective vest. After superiors excused the soldier from wearing the vest, he had no problems performing his duties.
8: Fear of Buttons
It's difficult to think of anything less threatening than those little plastic doodads that keep our shirts fastened. Yet koumpounophobia -- a pathological fear of buttons -- is surprisingly common. The disorder afflicts as many as one in every 75,000 people, according to Anxiety UK, a British organization that works to help phobia sufferers.
Button phobia often affects children. A 2002 article in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry documents the case of a 9-year-old boy who was treated for the phobia. But it can persist into adulthood, as evidenced by a 2008 article in The Sun, a British newspaper, about a 22-year-old woman named Gillian Linkins, who at age 7 found she was afraid to put on her school blouse because of an aversion to buttons. "For me, touching a button would be like touching a cockroach," she told the newspaper. "It feels dirty, nasty and wrong." As an adult, Linkins tried hypnotism and listening to self-help tapes to rid herself of button anxiety, but neither of those solutions helped. Instead, she's coped by wearing clothing with zippers.
7: Fear of Clowns
Coulrophobia might seem like a mental disorder so outlandish it was invented by a screenwriter. But it's real, and it's so prevalent that, in 2005, when a hospice organization in Sarasota, Fla., wanted to display 70 large fiberglass clown sculptures around town as part of a fundraising campaign, many locals objected. "The clown phobia thing is huge," sculptor Virginia Hoffman, chair of Sarasota's public art committee, told the Miami Herald. "I had no idea. Some people just plumb hate the images of clowns."
In fact, according to NPR, a recent British newspaper survey found that anxiety about clowns ranked just No. 3 behind fear of spiders and needles. One British circus actually holds pre-show therapy sessions for victims of the phobia, in which performers dressed in ordinary clothes and without makeup try to assure phobics that they're not a menace.
Why do people fear clowns? Well, let's just say it didn't help matters when real-life serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who sometimes entertained as Pogo the Clown, told a police officer investigating him that "clowns can get away with murder."
6: Fear of Knees
Kneecaps seem like a perfectly benign, albeit homely, body part. So how could people possibly be scared by them? Genuphobia sufferers become anxious at the sight of knees, whether they're knobby, wrinkled, or whatever.
Sarah Lister, a 25-year-old British woman, told the Telegraph newspaper in 2009 that the sight of bare knees disturbed her so much that going to the beach or even to a pub is an ordeal. "I worry that if I saw someone in a bathing costume or a short skirt, I would freak out," she said. Even watching her fiancé play soccer in shorts was difficult for her, she explained. In Lister's case, the origin of her phobia was a traumatic childhood experience, when she saw her father painfully dislocate his knee in a freak fall in their home. Lister became so fearful that she not only didn't like to look at others' knees, but was afraid someone would touch her knees or accidentally bump into them.
5: Fear of Butterflies
"Butterflies are Free" was the title of a 1972 movie, but sufferers from lepidopterophobia are anything but free from an irrational terror of the graceful, winged creatures. Perhaps the best-known lepidoterophobe is Australian actress Nicole Kidman, who confessed to a celebrity magazine interviewer that she herself was perplexed by the aversion. "It's so bizarre. I'm not afraid of snakes or spiders. But I'm scared of butterflies," she told People Magazine.
As odd as Kidman's phobia may seem, she's not alone in fearing butterflies; there's actually an online community, ihatebutterflies.com, for people with similar feelings. In 2007, the Swindon Advertiser, a British newspaper, reported on the case of a Welsh lepidopterophobic who found herself in the ultimate predicament: Her husband decided to purchase a butterfly farm in North Wales.
4: Fear of Flutes
For fans of the rock group Jethro Tull, listening to flutist Ian Anderson play is exhilarating. But for those afflicted with aulophobia, which the "Encyclopedia of Phobias, Fears and Anxieties" defines as a fear of flutes or similar wind instruments, such music evokes distress.
Although it's exceedingly rare, aulophobia is one of the oldest documented phobias. In fact, the first case was described by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, regarded by some as the father of medicine, who lived from 460 to 337 B.C. He wrote of a man who, in addition to being fearful of high places, was afraid of flute music: "As soon as he heard the first note of the flute at a banquet, he would be beset by terror," Hippocrates noted. Oddly, the man only experienced the phobia in the nighttime, or when alone. "In the daytime, when there were people about him, he would hear this instrument without feeling any emotion." Freudian psychoanalysts see the flute, because of its shape, as a possible phallic symbol, and thus relate fear of flutes to deep-seated sexual fears, according to the aforementioned encyclopedia of phobias.
3: Fear of Losing Mobile Phone Connectivity
In a world obsessed with mobile communication devices, it's not surprising that some folks have developed a phobia of missing some desired message. For people with this phobia, being out of range of a transmission tower can induce panic -- so can running out of batteries, misplacing a smartphone and being forced to turn that smartphone off.
Telecommunications and learning expert Gary Woodill says the disorder, known as nomophobia (not an ancient Greek term, but an abbreviation of "no mobile phone") is evident when college professors ban mobile device use during lectures. "Students respond to requests to shut off their phones with a sense of panic, a feeling that they will be cut off from their world of personal relationships," he writes. But other nomophobics see the device as a source of protection against other fears. A 2010 article in the medical journal "Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology," which describes nomophobia as "a disorder of the modern world," details the case of a patient who kept his mobile phone with him continuously for a 15-year period because of an "overwhelming" need to be able to call emergency services or people he trusted in the event he would become ill.
2: Fear of a Specific Place
People who suffer from agoraphobia, one of the most common phobias, have an irrational fear of being in any public place, especially where crowds gather, and may feel so overwhelmed that they essentially are trapped in their homes. But for those afflicted with a related disorder, locophobia, a fear of a specific geographical location, the problem is a bit less limiting, though just as bedeviling.
Apparently, locophobia is so rare that only one report on it is available in scientific literature. A 1970 article in Psychiatric Quarterly described the case of a 50-year-old Canadian man who was unable to visit a particular small town, St. Thomas, Ontario, about 200 miles (322 kilometers) from his home, "because of the incapacitating anxiety which would be induced." He was so phobic about the innocuous locale that he not only was unable to talk to people from St. Thomas, but he felt tense whenever he saw the town's name in a newspaper.
1: Fear of Phobias
The early 1900s self-help writer William Samuel Sadler, author of "Worry and Nervousness: Or, the Science of Self-Mastery," poo-pooed the notion of discrete phobias as medical mumbo-jumbo, and maintained that people inclined to be fearful didn't really need something in particular of which to be afraid. In the absence of a focus for their fright, he believed, they simply would develop "the dread of dreading."
In retrospect, perhaps Sadler was a bit too perfunctory in dismissing the existence of specific phobias, which psychiatrists and psychologists have been documenting in detail for many years. But having an extreme, irrational fear of developing a phobia is a genuine mental health disorder, experts say. The irony, however, is that a general fear of being afraid often is a result of having more specific phobias, not a substitute for them. Mental health expert Michael Linden, for example, writes that people who develop agoraphobia often are so traumatized by their first panic attack and eager to avoid a repeat attack that they become terrified of the possibility that they may encounter some trigger for it.