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About the Author
Arthur H. Bell, PhD is Director of Communication Programs and Professor of Management Communication at the Masagung Graduate School of Business, University of San Francisco.
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Facing Your Phobias
This chapter answers five questions:
1. What is a phobia?
2. What are the most common phobias?
3. What does a severe phobic response feel like?
4. How do phobia sufferers typically seek relief?
5. Why do phobia sufferers often fail to see the whole picture?
Do you or does someone you care about suffer from phobias? If so, this book is for you. Here we explain what phobias are, where they come from, and — perhaps most important — what you can do about them.
We take phobias seriously as threats not so much to life itself (although sometimes they are), but as obstacles to lifestyle. Phobias prevent people from enjoying many activities, ranging from business or personal travel, to a nature walk, to simply swallowing bites of a delicious meal. And others who care about a phobic person suffer as well. When a husband can't cross bridges or drive on freeways, a wife must often stay at home as well or go alone. When a friend can't fly, reunions are postponed for months, then years. When a father fears water, a child misses splashing with Dad.
If the solution to phobias was easy and apparent, the problem wouldn't exist. Those burdened by phobias know that "willing them away" rarely works. And, in truth, no one sells a pill or markets a single technique guaranteed to remove phobic suffering for all people in all cases.
In this book we propose several answers to the dilemma of phobic suffering. One of these or several in combination may well set you on the right path for recovery. We emphasize up front that no one technique is an instant "miracle" cure. Getting over a phobia that has plagued a person for many years requires time, patience, and effort. In most cases, the assistance of a health professional is highly recommended to help you apply the recovery concepts and strategies of this book to your individual situation. As with many of life's most complicated issues, simply knowing about phobias does not in itself guarantee psychological healing. Your physician, psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health counselor can help you turn good ideas into life realities. We hope that those good ideas begin with your reading of these chapters.
You're in Good Company!
It may be some consolation that you are not alone in your experience of a phobia. In fact, many highly regarded and successful individuals throughout history have been afflicted by a wide variety of phobic conditions. Below is a short list of some notable personalities and their phobias, as recently listed in U.S. News and World Report (November 24, 2004):
[??] Napoleon Bonaparte: ailurophobia (fear of cats)
[??] Queen Elizabeth I: subtype of anthophobia (fear of roses)
[??] Sigmund Freud: agoraphobia (fear of having an anxiety attack in a situation where escape might be difficult or embarrassing, such as a public gathering place)
[??] Howard Hughes: mysophobia (fear of germs ... nonetheless, he spent his final years so paralyzed by fear that he was isolated and lived in squalor)
[??] Edgar Allen Poe and Harry Houdini: claustrophobia (fear of small, crowded, or confined spaces)
[??] Andre Agassi: arachnophobia (fear of spiders)
[??] Donald Trump: chirophobia (fear of shaking hands)
[??] Cher, Whoopi Goldberg, John Madden, and Aretha Franklin: aviophobia (fear of flying)
[??] Paul Newman: social phobia (fear of social situations)
[??] Billy Bob Thornton: fear of antiques
What Is a Phobia?
Phobia, stemming from the Greek word for "fear," names a special set of apprehensions, anxieties, and terrors tied to particular things, places, experiences, and situations. As we will see throughout the following chapters, the list of different kinds of phobias is as various as life itself. Documented cases of phobias have involved the fear of swallowing, fear of babies, fear of tall trees, fear of short people, fear of dark clouds, and fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of one's mouth. The most common phobias by far are those related to flying; snakes; insects; heights; enclosure; crowds; hypodermic needles; and functions and status of the body, including illnesses, blood, and injury.
You probably do not need to consult a book to know if you suffer from a particular phobia. The phobic experience is memorable indeed, standing out as a giant emotional spike in the usual ups and downs of daily life. For example, Calvin begins his day with his usual set of feelings, issues, and hang-ups. He groans when he steps on the scale and worries that his new diet isn't working. He makes small talk with his girlfriend at breakfast and worries that the relationship is fading. He starts his car and worries that the ping in the engine means a big repair bill in the near future. These are the common stressors and anxieties of daily living.
But when Calvin enters the East Tunnel, an emotional spike occurs that differs in intensity, symptoms, and painfulness from his normal emotional life. When the traffic stops dead at the bottom of the tunnel, Calvin feels suddenly overwhelmed by his long-standing phobia of tunnels, particularly the feeling of being trapped in a tunnel. He begins to sweat profusely, his pulse rate soars, and panic sets in. He grips his steering wheel with white knuckles. Only when traffic begins to move again and Calvin is free of the tunnel and back into the daylight does his composure begin, slowly, to return. Exhausted, he feels he has been to hell and back — and vows to avoid tunnels at all costs in the future.
Calvin's experience qualifies as a classic case of phobia because his intense fears are aroused by the presence of a particular thing or experience — the tunnel in this case — and are alleviated only when that stimulus is removed. In this sense, phobias can be viewed as the hot peppers in the salad of life. You have no doubts when you experience them, nor do you confuse them with run-of-the-mill anxieties of life.
The Funny Side of Phobias
In an era and culture sensitive to most forms of mental and emotional illness, it's ironic that we continue to find phobias — the phobias of others, of course — somewhat humorous and entertaining. Usually we do not joke about the physical or emotional infirmities of others; Lord Byron's crippled foot, Winston Churchill's lisp, or John F. Kennedy's back problems aren't subjects available for jest. Yet when it comes to phobias, we as a culture seem to take relish in entertaining stories about the seemingly quaint fears of others. There is a part of us, as a culture, that likes to hear about Fred's morbid fear of spiders, Mabel's dread of deep water, and John's anxiety over germs on his hands. Such anecdotes are sufficiently exotic — that is, unlike our own experiences — to fascinate us.
At the same time, these stories increase our own sense of elevated status in relation to Fred, Mabel, and John. We feel "one up" because we do not suffer from these specific phobias. We enhance our own status by branding and labeling Fred, Mabel, and John in our own minds with their particular fears so that when we think of these people it is never without some thought to their phobic problems. Like the classic cartoon of the rich man slipping head over heels on a banana peel, we deflate others — albeit humorously — by picturing them forever being tripped up by the banana peel of their phobias.
We find some phobias so unusual and outright ridiculous, in fact, that we can't imagine why Fred, Mabel, and John don't break out laughing at their own fears. Take Fred, for example. He's a mesomorphic specimen with muscles on top of muscles, yet he can be reduced to a puddle of trembling perspiration by a small, nonpoisonous spider crawling across his desk.
Absurd? Not to Fred. And that's the key message with regard to any humor or entertainment we may find in the seemingly bizarre fears of others: their fears are as real to them as a crippled foot, lisp, or back problem. A culture of ridicule forces phobia sufferers to hide their dilemmas and, at the moment of a phobic episode, to worry about negative judgments and pointed fingers from others. In truth, there's nothing funny about phobias to those who suffer from them.
How Phobia Sufferers Seek Relief
You may wonder what in the world Calvin was doing in the East Tunnel when he knew full well that he suffered from a tunnel phobia. In fact, Calvin is not atypical of the large percentage of phobia sufferers who attempt to get over their fears by putting themselves again and again in the feared situation. They may rationalize that they have to cross a bridge or drive through a tunnel to get to work. But the underlying "script" being enacted here goes something like this: "I'm being silly to freak out in this tunnel. Thousands of people pass safely through it every day. I'm not going to let my ridiculous fears get the best of me. I can drive through this tunnel as confidently as anyone else. I just have to force myself to do it."
The notion of forcing oneself to overcome phobias helps to explain why so many phobic sufferers end up so often in exactly the circumstances they fear most — facing the barking dog, sitting on a crowded bus, swimming in deep water, and so forth. They push themselves to repeatedly experience their phobia in the hope (sometimes the misguided hope) that repeated suffering will eventually bring relief. Although some people do overcome phobias in this way, many others discover that touching a hot stove hurts just as much the 100th time as it did the first — and all the more so, if increasing injury (in the case of phobias, psychological injury) makes the pain worse.
Other phobic sufferers beat a quick path to their physician for a checkup. Too often in these few minutes of medical counsel the patient fails to tell the whole story of the phobic episode, sometimes out of embarrassment and sometimes from a lack of comprehension of the disorienting, frightening phobic event. For example, a patient fresh from a phobic episode may tell his physician that "sometimes my heart races and I feel clammy" instead of recounting the whole circumstance of the tunnel, the stopped traffic, and the onset of panic. With the best of professional intentions, a physician may give the patient a thorough physical exam and pronounce, with the goal of reassurance, that "you're perfectly fine."
Thousands of phobic sufferers come out of such doctor appointments only to be more confused than ever by their next phobic experience: "My heart is supposedly okay, but why is it racing again when I enter the tunnel? Why do I feel light-headed?" Many of these people seek further medical testing, second opinions, and advanced diagnosis in the hope of discovering "what's wrong with me."
Those who do tell their phobia story clearly to their physician may also encounter obstacles. Their doctor may recognize that a phobia is the likely cause of the patient's symptoms, but the physician may not be prepared to undertake time-consuming, talk-oriented therapy to address the problem. In an era of HMOs, PPOs, and "capitation" (in which a participating physician is financially pressured to limit outside referrals), the doctor may not make it a practice to send phobia sufferers promptly to a mental health professional for help. The doctor may remark, "You may want to see a psychologist or psychiatrist," with the subtext inferred by the patient, "... if you really think you are crazy." The doctor sometimes fails to suggest names and make a specific referral. Many phobia sufferers, already confused and discouraged by their situation, do not have the moxie or information resources to seek out a mental health professional on their own.
Another group of phobia sufferers attempt to self-medicate their way to relief, most commonly with alcohol ("a stiff drink usually gets me through"), nicotine ("I'm okay if I can smoke"), and tranquilizers such as Ativan ("attaboy"), Xanax, Valium, and their kin. For example, the senior manager who fears public speaking gets his courage up with a couple shots of whiskey before the big speech and drowns his sorrows after the speech with more alcohol. The interior designer who fears bridges pacifies herself by taking Ativan, which she purchases 30 pills at a time for $169 from an Internet pharmacy in Canada after her physician refused to renew her prescription. The obvious risks of substance addiction and abuse in these cases significantly outweigh any physical danger from phobic reactions.
Finally, the largest percentage of phobia sufferers self-treat their illness by avoidance of the feared thing or experience. Calvin quits his job to find work where he will never have to enter a tunnel. Those who fear dogs sell their homes to find apartments in dog-prohibited buildings. Those who fear snakes or particular insects move hundreds or thousands of miles away in search of a phobia-free existence. In the process, these people discover, first, that phobic stimuli are hard to avoid entirely; and second, that the extinguishment of one phobia through avoidance may simply be the prelude to a new phobia. For example, the woman who moves to San Francisco to avoid thunderstorms (San Francisco has very few) may find that she begins to fear some other weather phenomenon, such as blinding fog (of which San Francisco has an abundance). A person's psychological need for a phobia of some kind is rarely dissolved by avoidance alone.
Phobias and Social Embarrassment
A significant portion of the suffering accompanying phobic fears stems not from actual terror over the mold spores on the orange, slithering coils of the snake, or possibility of choking on a bite of steak, but on what others will think. Depending on our desire for approval and general social needs, we may go to great lengths to hide our phobic responses or to avoid situations that we feel may bring on such reactions. For example, a commercial real estate broker who fears heights may struggle mightily with impending feelings of panic as he shows an upper-story office suite with a suspended balcony overlooking the city. He may avoid such situations entirely, to his financial disadvantage and the befuddlement of his boss and clients.
The fear of what others will think — in itself a possible form of phobia — can intensify the sensations associated with a phobic episode. Worrying about the reactions of others becomes a pressure cooker for the person experiencing a phobic episode. It's one thing for Linda, a grade-school teacher, to stay out of the reptile house when she takes her class on a field trip to the zoo, with the explanation "I just hate snakes." But it's quite another thing when she attempts to hide her fear of snakes, under the assumption that her students and their parents will think less of her if she appears unable to lead a cage-by-cage, scale-by-scale tour of the reptile house.
Picture Linda's agony due to her fear not only of snakes, but of social embarrassment as well. She begins to perspire as she nears the cool, dark entrance to the reptile house. She feels strangely unsteady and light-headed as the first snake specimen comes into view. Sensations of panic wash across her as she tries to keep up her docent talk on the wonders of snakes, while all the time feeling an overpowering need to rush out of the reptile house. She worries that her physical discomfort and growing sense of terror must be apparent to those around her. She interprets the glance of any student or parent as the question, "Teacher, are you okay?" She bears down with all her might to fight against her emotions of fear, intensified now by her anxiety over what others are thinking about her. At last, drenched in sweat and weak from her emotional wars, she stumbles out the exit door of the reptile house, vowing silently never again! when it comes to leading field trips to the zoo.
How can the pressure cooker of others' reactions be turned off? Being honest with others about what you can and can't do certainly has general merit. Social anxiety can be relieved when others know about and accept your limitations. Self-acceptance of such limitations can also be a step toward internal peace.
But an important caveat or footnote should accompany any blanket advice to simply accept and admit one's perceived limitations. It's deceptively easy to assert that phobic sufferers should simply announce their handicaps to others and let the chips fall where they may. In many situations, phobic sufferers don't want to give in to their phobias. They see others having fun at a particular activity and they want to enjoy the activity as well. In addition, they know that the convenience and pleasure of others is directly impacted by the phobic person's problems. A husband, Bob, hates to let his wife down by passing up an opportunity for an anniversary cruise to Alaska all because he has experienced a long-standing fear of being at sea. In this case, Bob's love for his wife conflicts directly with his accommodation to his phobia. Part of him may want to nix the whole idea of a cruise, but another part of him would like to see his wife enjoy the time of her life on a long-anticipated cruise.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Phobias and How to Overcome Them"
Copyright © 2005 James Gardner and Arthur H. Bell.
Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Facing Your Phobias,
Chapter 2: Where Do Phobias Come From?,
Chapter 3: How Can I Recover From My Phobias?,
Chapter 4: Understanding Phobic Anxiety in New Ways,
Chapter 5: Becoming Familiar With Different Types of Phobias,
Chapter 6: Anxiety and Mood Disorders Underlying Phobias,
Chapter 7: Medical Evaluation and Treatment of Phobias,
Chapter 8: The Role of Counseling, Psychotherapy, and Cognitive Behavioral,
Therapy in Overcoming Phobias,
Chapter 9: Using the Anxiety Toolbox to Conquer Phobias,
Chapter 10: Phasing Out Your Phobias,
References and Recommended Reading,
About the Authors,