Fears and Phobias – In Fear and Trembling
Sprawled out on a lakeside dock, you revel in the sun as it warms your body. A tall glass of lemonade with crackling ice cubes sits next to you, beckoning another refreshing sip. With a page-turning book in hand, you absorb the words found beyond the lines of everyday life in a faraway land called cottage country. Slightly sensationalized perhaps, but we can all relate to that idyllic sense of escapism that can’t possibly be marred by anything. Right?
For most, this is true, but for some, this seemingly perfect scenario can be curtailed by one itsy bitsy encounter. For the latter group, an eight-legged creature can creep through the cracks and kill the entire experience. In fact, it can go further than that, preventing you from ever putting yourself in situations where the presence of spiders is probable.
No more dock-side lounging, no more bug-enticing drinks outdoors, no more reading by the water, and in some cases, no more cottage country at all. Suddenly the magic of summer slips right through your sweaty palms. Specific phobias are intense, irrational fears of objects or situations that can span from spiders, needles and dogs, to driving, flying and the dark. For approximately 12 per cent of North Americans, the fear can be incredibly crippling, often accompanied by a slew of panic-related symptoms like perspiration, a racing heart, heavy breathing, nausea and an urgency to escape. “A lot of people have fears of different things and they don’t care; it doesn’t come up often. It’s only a phobia if it interferes with your life in some way,” says Martin Antony, professor and chair of Ryerson University’s psychology department.
As the author of multiple panic-related books, including Overcoming Animal and Insect Phobias: How to Conquer Fear of Dogs, Snakes, Rodents, Bees, Spiders and More, Antony has dealt with several phobic individuals in the GTA and surrounding areas throughout his 25 years in the field. He recalls his sessions with a 16-year-old girl who was so terrified of spiders that she would sleep fully clothed throughout the summers on the top floor of her non-air-conditioned home. Her window would be sealed shut and she would cocoon herself in a heavy duvet. The fear permeated other areas of her life, preventing her to work effectively at her part-time job since she would avoid certain areas where she had previously spotted a spider. “If she saw a spider on TV she had to change the channel. If she saw one in the newspaper she’d have to close her eyes. Her family avoided vacationing in certain places because of spiders, so it was affecting a lot of different areas of her life,” says Antony, who treated another patient whose fear of spiders became life-threatening when she jumped out of a moving car with her boyfriend in the passenger seat.
The former individual overcame her phobia in just two sessions of exposure therapy, an evidence-based technique that involves bringing the phobic person into a safe environment where their fear is systematically integrated. “So they start off maybe standing 20 feet away from the spider, then gradually they get closer and eventually they are able to hold a jar that has a spider in it. Next, they’re able to hold the jar with the lid off and eventually we dump the spider in a bin and they essentially tap it with a pencil, and then they tap it with their finger, and then they hold the spider and they kind of just move through it step-by-step,” says Antony. He cautions the DIY method of orchestrating surprise scenarios where the fear is involuntarily imposed. “If you force people to do things, than it just becomes another trauma. You need to find ways to motivate them to give it a try, and sometimes with kids we use little rewards like an ice cream cone or a dollar.”
While animals are one of the most prevalent fears among the general population, other common ones include needles, driving, heights and flying. “I’ve seen a real estate agent who had a fear of heights, and couldn’t work in certain environments because some of the houses she’d be selling might not be fully built yet and she wouldn’t be able to get to certain places or she wouldn’t be able to sell condos in tall buildings,” he says. Luckily, advancements in technology have taken exposure therapy to new heights. While fear of flying can require real-life practice, today it can actually involve virtual reality, which uses computer-based simulations to make people feel like they’re actually on an airplane.
Beth Koren, an occupational therapist at Metamorphosis – The Toronto Psychosomatic Clinic, employs a different approach with her fear-stricken flyers and needle phobes: hypnosis. For the cynics who’ve seen too many episodes of The Twilight Zone, Koren urges people to look past the stigma of hypnotic therapy. “We’re not going to try to control someone in some draconian way. That’s unfortunately what authors did to make books sound interesting,” she says. Instead, Koren aims to bring people into a deep state of relaxation, where they’re able to explore their subconscious mind while being fully aware of everything that’s happening. “That’s what I always tell people when they first come in, especially if they’re skeptical: you’re going to hear absolutely everything I say.”
If you have an intense fear of flying, it may not matter how many people tell you it’s safer to be in a plane than a car; your conscious mind will skirt reality and redirect you to a collage of exceptions. “When the conscious mind – the naysayer – is relaxed, the subconscious mind is much more open to suggestion,” says Koren. While it may sound far-fetched, this is precisely what occurs when we read books and watch movies. Everyone remembers that scene in Forrest Gump where his metal leg shackles fall to the ground in a spontaneous fit of fear and fervour. “Run Forrest, run!” Jenny yells in slow motion, as an unwavering band of bicycling bullies are hot on young Gump’s trail. As an audience, we’re staunchly committed. Strapped to the edge of our seats, rooting for a young boy who’s figuratively losing his inhibitions with every unthinkable stride. The rush of adrenaline and bone-chilling empathy that’s unleashed into our veins while watching such emotionally charged sequences makes no real sense at all, but for some reason, we helplessly allow it to pulse through us. “You’re suspending reality, you know darn well that this whole thing is scripted, you know those are paid actors,” she says. “The subconscious is able to take the movie or book and really internalize it so that these emotions come up. And that’s what we’re capitalizing on – the ability of the subconscious mind to be able to either take in or reframe the scenario the way it should have been, so that the person can then go on with their life.” Koren finds that she’s typically able to help someone overcome their fear within two sessions if they can identify the root cause, but with cases of an increased seriousness, she advises her clients to explore exposure therapy with the aid of a psychiatrist.
While studies are still in the works, there is no solid evidence that connects specific phobias and fears to specific personality traits. “People can be really confident in every area of their life but just afraid of dogs,” says Antony, who believes 90 per cent of people with a specific phobia will experience significant relief following exposure therapy. “I know people who are very comfortable jumping out of planes, skydiving, but they’re not comfortable flying on planes,” he adds. It’s best to be proactive and start young. If you’re a parent who panics at the sight of a dog, complains before getting a needle or constantly voices your aversion of flying, then your child can potentially inherit these same fears. Instead, Antony encourages parents to do the opposite and take advantage of opportunities to gently expose children to fear-inducing objects and situations.
Living a life of fear can have its consequences. If they’re intense enough, these consequences can be far greater than not being able to relax on a lakeside dock or jet off to Paris on a whim. Imagine what would life would be like today if some of history’s greatest masterminds had been inflicted with phobias: if the Wright brothers were afraid of heights, if Jane Goodall was averse to animals; if Christopher Columbus was terrified of the sea; if Frederick Banting fainted at the sight of needles. Just like Forrest Gump and his once-constricting leg braces, there is hope that people with specific phobias can eventually break free from whatever’s holding them back.
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