Paralysed by phobias

Nov 11 2017


Illustration by Muhammad Faizan
Illustration by Muhammad Faizan

I didn’t realise writing this article would be this difficult until I am actually doing it — my heartbeat has quickened, I am a bit jittery and my senses are super-sensitive right now. I am ready to jump out of my skin at the slightest of excuse.

No, writing isn’t what’s scaring me — it is writing about phobias that is making me nervous because it makes me think of my own phobia. Sheesh! How do I write about it?

Okay, let me give it a try. I am scared of reptiles, especially snakes and house lizards ... the goosebumps have appeared already! This is all that I am going to write about my own phobia because I can’t put myself through a panic attack. I will just go into what phobias are, generally, and the myriad kinds of things that people are really, really scared of.

And I am hoping this will help in a better understanding, by both you and me, of why people end up having unreasonable fear of certain things, what are its different types and if something can be done about it.

phobias are, generally, and the myriad kinds of things that people are really, really scared of.

And I am hoping this will help in a better understanding, by both you and me, of why people end up having unreasonable fear of certain things, what are its different types and if something can be done about it.

Fear is normal

Fear is a very normal emotion, ‘normal’ because it is a reasonable reaction of both human beings and other animals, when they feel threatened. It’s a ‘fight-or-flight’ response from real or perceived danger around us. Self-preservation is an inborn trait and being fearful of being harmed is actually a healthy reaction.

But the effects triggered by fear are varied and can be problematic, leading people to avoid situations and things they fear. But with time, when a person learns that there is no need to be afraid of something or exposure to it makes them realise this, they can easily overcome this fear. For instance, most of us are fearful of public speaking, but once we have done so a few times, we gain the confidence to face a crowd and soon it becomes a piece of cake for us.

Children fear many things but as they grow older, they outgrow their fears easily. But if they don’t, or it becomes more intense, then it is a matter of concern.


Intense and irrational fear of something or a particular situation that overwhelms a person is known as phobia. If you fear something very much, such as a cat or dog, and can still be in the same room with it as long as it is not touching you, it is not phobia.

Phobias cause extreme anxiety and can even prevent a person from living a normal life. For instance, people who fear enclosed spaces and are what we call claustrophobic, they can’t bring themselves to use an elevator. The stress and fear a phobic person feels is out of proportion to the potential danger.

Phobias are similar to anxiety disorder, but, as they are usually linked to something specific, an individual does not experience any symptoms until they come into contact with the source of their phobia.

According to researchers, about 10 percent of people develop a phobia. They may be afraid of heights, spiders, snakes or needles, while others can have very strange phobias related to things like cupcakes, peas, buttons and even getting a haircut!

To simplify something as complex as phobias, they have been classified into simple phobias and complex phobias.

Simple phobias

The fear of specific things such as needles or a particular animal, etc, tend to develop in childhood, most likely after a particularly terrifying incident involving that particular thing. This may last a lifetime or become mild as the person grows older and learns to face the fear and overcome it.

For instance a person who is afraid of dogs will be scared of taking a walk outside for the fear of seeing a dog. It is scary, confusing and embarrassing to fear something that others don’t.

The common types of simple phobias

Animal phobia: Also known as zoophobia, this is the irrational fear of a particular animal. Examples include cynophobia (the fear of dogs), apiphobia (fear of bees or bee stings), orithophobia (fear of birds), ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) and arachnophobia (fear of spiders).

Environmental phobia: This is the fear of a specific natural situation or event, such as acrophobia (fear of heights), astraphobia (fear of thunder and lightning), nyctophobia (fear of the night or of darkness) and many others.

Situation phobia: Fears such as visiting the dentist, etc.

Bodily phobia: These include the fear of a particular medical procedure, blood (homophobia) and witnessing an injury.

Illustration by Muhammad Faizan
Illustration by Muhammad Faizan

Complex phobias

Complex phobias are more difficult to understand and are more disabling. These are seen to develop during adulthood and usually a result of a deep-rooted fear about a certain situation.

Among the common types of complex phobias are agoraphobia and social phobia. A person with agoraphobia may feel anxiety in situations where they feel unsafe and unable to escape it. These situations can be open spaces, public transport, shopping malls, movie theatre, being outside the home or even being alone at home.

Social phobia can include a fear of public speaking, eating with other people and social contact in general.

The roots of phobias

It’s not easy to pinpoint the cause of phobias and cure them. An event could have triggered the phobia in a person or it may be that they are simply born with certain personality traits or genes, which makes them more sensitive to fears.

While no one trigger is related to a particular phobia, the more common ones — such as the fear of dogs — are more likely to be linked to childhood environment.

Overcoming phobias

With the right kind of counselling, some people can learn to overcome their phobias to some extent that they just experience moderate fear.

This can be done by systematic desensitisation, where the source of the phobia is introduced in easily-managed stages so that people learn to face their fears and realise that it isn’t something to be so afraid of. This can be tough, but it can be done.

For instance, a person who fears dogs may be shown a picture of the animal at first, then slowly made to be in a room with a dog for a few minutes, then pet it, etc. As the person gets used to the feared object or situation, the brain adjusts its responses and the phobia is overcome. A proper therapist needs to do this.

Learning relaxation techniques is also helpful in controlling the anxiety one feels. As with most things, the hardest part is getting started, then with the right coaching and support, a person can overcome their phobia to some bearable extent.

Published in Dawn, Young World, November 11th, 2017