By Sherry Steinman
“Desperate for answers, she read about her symptoms in a magazine article.”
Alice would not leave her house without the company of her husband, and would not step across the street to get mail from the mailbox as it was too far from the front door. She became sweaty and faint every time she tried to do so. This had been the case for more than a year now. She did not know exactly when or how the feeling started.
Jack didn’t like being up too high. He did not like the ‘skydeck’ lookouts on skyscrapers, and wasn’t crazy about airplane trips – although he could handle the flight if he did not look out the window a lot. He certainly did not seek out situations where he would be looking down from high atop anything.
Fear or Phobia?
Alice has a phobia, Jack has a manageable fear. Phobias are not ordinary fears or minor worries. Rather, they are generally incapacitating, irrational fears that interfere with and limit a person’s ability to function in everyday life. Phobias, or ‘anxiety disorders’ are mental health issues from which millions of people suffer. Only about one-fourth of them get help from a professional health and wellness practitioner of some kind.
Alice went to great lengths to hide her phobia, feeling that other people wouldn’t understand, and maybe wouldn’t like her if they did. She didn’t know what to do, and her regular physician could not find anything physically ‘wrong’ with her.
Desperate for answers, she one day read about a woman with exactly her symptoms in a magazine article. At least now she had a name for it – agoraphobia – fear of open spaces. And, now she knew there were other people out there who had the same feelings. Alice sought help, guided by the information in the magazine article.
Jack acknowledged his fear, and those around him were aware that he wanted to be more comfortable with heights. They applauded him when he accepted a job on the 23rd floor of the office building downtown, and rode the glass elevator daily. It wasn’t easy! He bought a self-help book and enjoys his new job.
Interestingly, studies show that phobias tend to run in families, and that sufferers may have a sensitivity to their own body chemistry. This may result in an over-reaction to a given stimulus. According to one expert, it may be described as a person feeling a very strong emotional reaction to a bodily sensation.
Treatments for phobias include those that teach the person different and more effective coping skills, and various relaxation techniques. Also helpful for some people is ‘exposure therapy,’ in which the person is gradually exposed to the frightening experience until it becomes non-threatening. Medication may be used as well, either alone, or in combination with behavioral treatments.
A relatively new development in treating phobias is the use of virtual reality technology. It uses computer-generated images to simulate an anxiety-provoking situations. For instance, virtually creating the sensation of being in a confined space (claustrophobia) may be useful in preparing a person for the real life experience.
For those who do conquer their fears and phobias, the relief is monumental! Lives can change completely. Alice, who sought help, now urges others to do so, as well. She advises, “Why limit yourself when help is available? There is no reason to suffer in silence.”
If you, or someone you know, suffers from fears that seem irrational or disruptive to day-to-day life, you may wish to contact:
Licking and Knox County Mental Health & Recovery: http://www.mhrlk.org/
Dial 2-1-1 or 1-800-544-1601 (24 hours a day/7 days a week).