How does ochlophobia or fear of crowds develop?

Do you have nightmares about taking public transport at rush hour, going to a concert with friends or enjoying the sun on a crowded beach? This irrational fear of crowds is constructed according to the history of each individual and it is necessary to study all the psychological, biological, genetic and emotional mechanisms to understand it properly. Let us define ochlophobia, the fear of crowds. 


Fear: a primary emotion

Fear is a primary emotion found in all cultures. It was essential to the survival of our ancestors because it enabled them to apprehend a danger that could endanger their lives (predatory animals, darkness, heights, etc.). Today, the evolution of our society allows us to be better protected and perpetuates our survival. However, this fear still remains deep inside us and survival behaviours sometimes reappear, sometimes giving way to very strong anxiety and/or avoidance of situations.

According to Seligman (researcher and professor in psychology), the appearance of phobias can be explained by innate factors. For him, it would be the association of stimuli related to the survival of the human species combined with certain experiences that would provoke a pre-phobic state. But fear can also be learned from others. It is sometimes enough to see a person react fearfully to influence the psychological representations that we have of a situation or an object. The learned response produces a neurophysiological awakening. This learning does not necessarily take place in a rational way, which explains why a large number of unfounded fears can appear.

Parents, the first imitation model for the child

Through their behaviour, speech and facial expressions, they transmit their anxiety and distrust of the outside world to their children. If parents perceive danger everywhere, if they fear being cornered by many people, or if they are afraid of crowds, they will systematically choose avoidance solutions. The child will end up naturally copying the behavioural pattern of their parents so they will avoid going to concerts, taking public transport at rush hour and the child will naturally learn to avoid these situations, without really knowing why. Ochlophobia can be learned and passed on gradually, over the years.

The “biopsychosocial” model

All these characteristics contribute to the development and maintenance of a phobia. This is known as the ‘biopsychosocial’ model, since it is necessary to take into account all biological, psychological and social factors in order to understand your phobic behaviour. This means that your temperament is partly explained by biological predispositions. Psychological characteristics can be understood through the education you received from your parents or through particularly trying life events that you may have gone through. Finally, social factors help to explain the sharp rise in the number of individuals with a fear of crowds, as society has made it easier to move large groups of people over the last 30 years.

The trauma behind the fear of crowds

The other origin that is very often found in cases of ochlophobia is traumatic experiences related to crowds. If you have been attacked in a crowd of people or humiliated by a large group of people, there is a strong risk that you will associate the intense negative emotions you felt at that time with situations where there are a large number of people. Ochlophobia, in this case, will be somewhat similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the more or less conscious idea of reliving this distressing experience will act as a trigger for extremely high anxiety with associated characteristic symptoms (hyperventilation, nausea, trembling, etc).

Being caught up in a crowd can also be traumatic and can lead to panic fear. You dread the oppression and compression felt, which may have been strong, as well as the real threat that arises during this kind of phenomenon. However, it is the feeling of having no control over what is happening, of being completely vulnerable, that is most traumatic. Oclophobic people therefore worry disproportionately about the fact that at any moment, in their view, the crowd may be caught up in an unpredictable movement against which they cannot fight and which will undoubtedly lead to serious injury or even death. 

Like all phobias, fear of crowds gives rise to avoidance behaviour. You want to protect yourself from the dangers of the situations you fear and you make sure that you never have to face them. This requires a great deal of organisation: you have to think about your daily life in terms of your fears, which creates a considerable mental burden that will become more and more consequential as time goes by. This permanent preoccupation and the recurrent impediments it implies tend to seriously affect the well-being and quality of life of those affected.


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