When you ask people what they’re afraid of, a few common answers pop up: public speaking, needles, global warming, losing a loved one. But if you take a look at popular media, you would think we were all terrified of sharks, dolls, and clowns.
While the last item may give a few people pause, 7.8 percent of Americans, totally get it, according to a Chapman University survey.
A fear of clowns, called coulrophobia (pronounced “coal-ruh-fow-bee-uh”), can be a debilitating fear.
A phobia is and intense fear of a certain object or scenario that impacts behavior and sometimes daily life. Phobias are often a deep-rooted psychological response tied to a traumatic event in someone’s past.
For people who fear clowns, it can be difficult to stay calm near events that others view with joy — circuses, carnivals, or other festivals. The good news is you’re not alone, and there are things you can do to ease your fears.
Suffering from coulrophobia and getting spooked while watching a movie with a killer clown are very different things. One is a trigger for deep-seated panic and intense emotions, whereas the other is fleeting and confined to a 120-minute movie.
Researchers have found that portrayals of clowns as terrifying and negative characters in popular entertainment has contributed directly to increased instances of intense fear and phobia of clowns.
While coulrophobia isn’t an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the manual that guides mental health professionals as they diagnose, there is a category for “specific phobias.”
SYMPTOMS OF A PHOBIA
It’s important to recognize that just like any other phobia, a fear of clowns comes with its own specific physical and mental symptoms, such as:
- sweating or sweaty palms
- dry mouth
- feelings of dread
- difficulty breathing
- increased heartbeat
- intense emotions such as screaming, crying, or becoming angry at the sight of the object of fear, a clown for example
Phobias often come from a variety of sources — usually a deeply traumatic and frightening event. Occasionally, however, you’ll come across a fear with roots you can’t identify, meaning you don’t know why you’re so intensely afraid of the thing in question. You just are.
In the case of coulrophobia, there are a few likely causes:
- Scary movies. There’s a connection between scary clowns in media and people being intensely afraid of them. Viewing too many scary movies with clowns at an impressionable age can have a lasting impact — even if it was just once at a friend’s sleepover.
- Traumatic experiences. Having an experience that involves a clown where you were paralyzed with terror or were unable to escape the situation could be classified as a traumatic experience. Your brain and body would be wired from that point on to flee any situation involving clowns. While this isn’t always the case, it’s possible that your phobia may be tied to traumas in your life, and it’s important to discuss this as a possible cause with a trusted therapist or family member.
- Learned phobia. This one is a little less common, but it’s equally possible that you may have learned your fear of clowns from a loved one or trusted authority figure. We learn rules about the world from our parents and other adults, so seeing your mom or older sibling terrified of clowns may have taught you that clowns are a thing to fear.
Most phobias are diagnosed by talking with a therapist or mental health professional, who then consults the diagnostic guidelines for that particular phobia in order to decide the best treatment moving forward. In the case of coulrophobia, things are a little trickier.
Since coulrophobia is not listed as an official phobia in the DSM-5, you may simply need to meet with a therapist to discuss your fear of clowns and the ways that fear seems to be impacting your life. Talk through what happens in your mind and body when you see a clown — shortness of breath, dizziness, panic, or anxiety, for example.
Once your therapist knows your experience, they can work with you to find a way to treat and manage your phobia.
Most phobias are treated with a combination of psychotherapy, medication, and at-home remedies or techniques.
Some treatments you can discuss with your therapist include, but are not limited to:
Psychotherapy is, essentially, talk therapy. You meet with a therapist to talk through anxieties, phobias, or other mental health issues you may be facing. For phobias such as coulrophobia, you’ll most likely use one of two types of psychotherapy:
- Exposure therapy.This type of therapy is almost exactly what it sounds like. You’re exposed to the thing you fear in a non-threatening and safe environment. In this case, your therapist may show you a picture of a clown, and you can discuss the feelings and emotions that come up at the moment, working to find ways to reduce and manage their intensity.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT focuses on changing thinking and patterns around certain behaviors. For example, you may work with your therapist to change the way you think about clowns until it’s more positive or neutral.
Medication is best used in conjunction with regular talk therapy while treating your phobia. Some types of medication you may use in your treatment are:
- Beta-blockers. Also sometimes used for high blood pressure, beta-blockers cause your heartbeat to pump a little slower. In cases where you have a panic or fear response, this can help you feel more calm and relaxed.
- Sedatives.This is another type of prescription drug that can help you to feel more relaxed. Sedatives are a little more intense and can lead to dependence — so they are not typically a first-line treatment for anxiety or phobia.
Practicing a few helpful relaxation habits and techniques at home may help. For example:
- Mindfulness. This is a simple meditation technique that helps to center you in the present moment as opposed to any traumatic past experiences. Remember that sometimes phobias come from experiencing a trauma. Learning how to ground yourself where you are right now can help to reduce your fear response.
- Relaxation techniques. Other types of relaxation techniques may include guided meditation for a few minutes a day, yoga, or journaling quietly by yourself.
A few key ways to seek help for your coulrophobia include:
- Finding a support group. You can check the Anxiety and Depression Association of America to find a phobia group near you.
- Contacting a psychiatrist. The American Psychiatric Association has a directory that can help you get started.
- Seeking a therapist or counselor. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration has a directory to find a therapy center near you.
- Talking with a trusted friend or family member. Reducing shame and stigma around your fear can help it to feel less isolating and intense.
If your phobia is causing intense isolation or you’re feeling hopeless, you can speak to someone anytime by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Sometimes people are afraid of things that seem harmless to other people, like butterflies, helium balloons, or clowns. Fear of clowns can be a phobia, and it can be effectively managed and treated with therapy, medication, or both.