PUSH YOURSELF: Overcoming common phobias
Most of us have at least one niggling fear – unease about getting stuck in lifts maybe, or the ability to work ourselves up into a clammy-palmed sweat at the thought of a dental appointment. These are minor, however, with most of us able to shake them off. When these fears develop and start causing us major anxiety, often interfering with the running of our day-to-day lives, they’re deemed full blown phobias: an intense fear of something that, in reality, poses little or no actual danger. The good news is that generally phobias can be managed, if not cured. We’ve pulled together a list of some of the most common phobias and a few tips on how you can overcome them.
Fear of public speaking
Put simply, glossophobia is stage fright – that gut-sinking feeling of being frozen to the spot at the mere thought of addressing an audience, or performing at an event. In extreme cases, a person can completely clam up; stuck to the spot and unable to speak all the while accompanied by debilitating side effects like dry mouth, shaking, sweating and palpitations.
As with most ‘ailments’, there are two routes sufferers of glossophobia can go down – the homeopathic and the medical. Aconitum napellus or gelsemium are recommended homeopathic remedies; herbal remedies like lemon balm, lavender and passion flower are known nerve soothers; and in terms of severe cases, beta blockers can be prescribed for lowering heart rate and controlling anxiety.
Fear of heights
Affecting nearly one in every 20 adults, the term acrophobia is derived from the Greek words ‘acron’, meaning heights, and ‘phobos’, meaning fear. In general, it can affect your ability to make the most of the great outdoors – climbing, skiing, hill walking – and in extreme cases, people with a phobia of heights can be overcome with dizziness and panic at the slightest thought of being anywhere high, be that driving over a bridge, or ascending in a lift.
Psychiatrists often blame rapidly accelerating and irrational negative thinking for acrophobia – “If I stand on the ledge, I’ll be tempted to jump or someone will push me over”, “I’m going to panic, have a heart attack and die” – these fears stem from the unconscious mind, which then tries to create a protective mechanism, so a great deal of commitment and a combination of counselling, hypnosis and meditation is recommended to beat it.
Fear of flying
Approximately 25 per cent of all air travellers suffer from the fear of flying; mild anxiety – sweaty palms and a sense of unease on takeoff and landing are pretty normal, but in severe cases, physical symptoms can include sweating, trembling, increased heart rate, nausea and vomiting; psychological symptoms range from irritation, dizziness, and thoughts of falling to one’s death, to an inability to think clearly, disorientation and nervousness. Eventually, phobics start cancelling plans to avoid flying altogether, which can have negative consequences on both their career and personal lives.
Psychiatrists can be really helpful in ascertaining the magnitude of the fear and can then suggest medication to sedate travellers during flight if this is suitable; if not, group and individual therapy sessions are also known to help ease aerophobia, and hypnosis can be useful too.
Fear of germs
People with an excessive fear of germs think the entire world that exists outside of their spick and span one is filthy, so they’re always washing or cleaning and can be known to spend a huge amount of their time doing so. The trouble is, this can rack up sizeable costs and also expose them to harmful chemicals, which a majority of strong cleaning products contain. People with an extreme fear of germs tend to think about microbes all the time too; they’re scared of contamination from dirt, dust, grime and cannot stand to be near people who are sneezing or coughing.
A combination of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy is recommended to treat mysophobia. CBT helps with changing irrational thoughts – “I think germs will kill me” – into more reasoned thoughts – “exposure to some germs can be healthy and useful”. Exposure therapy is about helping the sufferer remain calm around germs and to encounter them more and more frequently until he or she is able to stop obsessively washing their hands.
Fear of spiders
Affecting 32 per cent of women and 18 per cent of men in the UK (*cough* that’s 18 per cent of men prepared to admit it *cough*), arachnophobia – the fear of spiders – is the oldest and most common phobia in Western culture. Scientists have evinced that it’s actually an evolutionary response: spiders have long been associated with infection and disease, which triggers an automatic ‘disgust’ reaction in a lot of us. Far from feeling a little afraid, when arachnophobia reaches phobia level, symptoms can include a rapid heart rate, hot or cold flushes, chest pain, trembling, a feeling of choking and even thoughts of death.
In really extreme cases, psychoactive medicines like benzodiazepines are helpful in reducing the intensity of the reactions in the presence of spiders, but sedating yourself is a pretty serious measure. A more modern method of treating arachnophobia is systematic desensitisation, which is a gradual exposure technique. There’s even an app for it – if you’re fearful of our eight-legged friends, download Phobia Treatments – Paul McKenna, and see if he can help.
Fear of death
The talk, thought, or even suggestion of what may happen after death can trigger panic attacks in a sufferer of thanatophobia, which is loosely defined as: ‘a feeling of dread, apprehension or anxiety when one thinks of the process of dying, or ceasing to be’. Physical symptoms may include dizziness, dry mouth, sweating, palpitations, stomach pain and a numbness, or tingling sensation; mental symptoms include repetition of gory thoughts and an inability to distinguish between reality and unreality; and emotional symptoms can trigger a desire to flee and escape, as well as persistent, overwhelming worry.
If the fear of death is affecting someone’s life to the point where they can’t go to work, or leave the house at all, then the only solution is to see a doctor, who can then rule out any possible physical conditions and suggest an appropriate mental health professional. Anti-anxiety medicine can help too, as can hypnotherapy, CBT, and group therapy with others.
Fear of needles
Another classic phobia, trypanophobia affects around 10 per cent of the world’s population and is characterised by an irrational or excessive fear of needles, pins and injections. Common symptoms include feeling faint at the thought and sight of needles, shortness of breath and full-blown panic attacks.
As with arachnophobia, systematic desensitisation is a gradual exposure technique and is useful in overcoming this particular fear, as is behavioural therapy to help identify and manage irrational thoughts associated with needles and injections particularly, and one-on-one clinical hypnotherapy, which induces deep relaxation in patients and helps explore the root of the phobia, so it can be challenged.