The NHS have defined a phobia as an 'overwhelming and debilitating fear of an object, place, situation, feeling or animal' (1).
Most people are frightened of something, and most objects have someone somewhere frightened of them. The difference between a "fear" and a phobia is that the latter is much more powerful and noticeable.
Wasps can hurt us, so it's sensible to be wary of them; however, a wasp phobia (otherwise known as spheksophobia) is irrational, exaggerated and not always based on the fear of being stung. Plus, when someone with a wasp phobia encounters one, they can react dangerously, leading to road accidents, falls off ladders or otherwise harmful behaviours that far outweigh the danger the wasp presents. Although wasp stings can, for some people, be dangerous, the sting is usually an annoying pain that passes in a few hours or, at worst, a few days; fleeing from a wasp at top speed into a busy road is usually much more perilous! And, of course, most wasps we come into contact don't sting us!
A wasp phobia can become so intense that people refuse to open their windows during stifling summer heat, avoid going outside in the summer and generally suffer a great deal of life-limiting stress even when thinking about or seeing pictures of wasps. This is when it becomes "irrational".
A client who lived with all of the above came to see me, as it was seriously affecting her life. She couldn't sit outside in the summer at all, and if a wasp came near, she would shout, swear, waft her hands and run away; she also felt dizzy, sick and panicky.
Treatment included gradual desensitisation, starting by looking at photographs of wasps and learning how to relax while doing so, then finally moving on to deliberately being in places where she was likely to encounter wasps. This also included several safety measures, including staying calm, moving slowly away from the wasp and avoiding waving her hands and arms at them. Ironically, staying calm and not flapping at the wasps reduces your chance of being stung, so this reaction was helpful and proportionate.
The client also learned relaxation and self-hypnosis to carry out before and after desensitisation activities. We also investigated the causes of the phobia (one of which was seeing her brother crying after being stung by one when they were children) and managed to put them into perspective, using a combination of hypnotherapy and the emotional freedom technique. By the end of the therapy, although the client didn't like wasps, she was able to live a calmer, more relaxed life and once again enjoy those long summer evenings.