Are you afraid to speak in public? Does the thought of getting on a plane make your throat close? Are you tormented by fears of throwing up at the next dinner party some hapless individual invites you to? There is good news and bad. The bad news is that you may have a phobia. The good news is they can be cured. Well, some of them, and not always forever.
Take STAGE FRIGHT, for example. Of course you don’t want to get up before a bunch of people and start talking. About what? You don’t know anything, You’ve never done anything. You’ve raised six children, but that doesn’t count for anything. Who wants to hear about that?
Fear is a natural emotion in human beings, animals, birds, even worms. It’s purpose is to put us on alert, turn our attention away from the trash we were messing around with before, and concentrate on this new thing until we figure out the extent of the danger and decide on an appropriate response. If a lion comes bounding into the kitchen, maybe you’d better run. If there’s no safe way out, grab that cleaver and start swinging.
These necessary and valuable responses to fear have somehow become all inflated until they have oozed over into such relatively harmless activities as going out to the mailbox after dark, welcoming strangers into your home and certainly, talking in front of other human beings. How does this happen? It may have arisen when you were five and made what you thought was a profound statement, only to have older children and grown-ups laugh hysterically at you. They embarrassed you, and perhaps made you resolve to keep your mouth shut from now on. The profound statement will not be remembered beyond your next birthday, but the awful feeling when you realized they were laughing AT you instead of WITH you will never leave.
As far as curing stage fright is concerned, one method (often used in curing other phobias, like arachnophobia – fear of spiders – yuk!) is to desensitize yourself by exposing yourself to and controlling your fear in small increments. This is the method used by tightrope walkers. The line is first suspended a foot above the ground, and the student walks on that until his fear is gone. Then the rope is raised another foot, and another foot until the student loses his fear of that and so forth. By first speaking before 2-3 people (which most people have done at one time or another), then a somewhat larger group, and on and on, you can learn to control your fear.
FEAR OF FLYING causes untold people to shun airports like they were hotbeds of bird flu. It has been estimated that one in eight US citizens are terrified of flying – in the extreme this may rise to the level of a phobia. In the social and financial realm especially, it can become a real handicap. You can always tell who has a phobia and has been forced to fly: they pant, flutter their hands around their hearts when they’re not white-knuckling the arms of the seat, say they feel nauseous, and wipe ineffectually at the drops of cold sweat running down their temples. “Never, never again,” they say. “But Mom, you’ll miss Sheila’s wedding.” “I don’t care, I’ll go by bus.”
There are medications you can take for flying, Paxil, perhaps, or Xanax or Dramamine if you get motion sickness, but they can cause side effects you may not like. Anyway, there might not be a store handy – haven’t seen many Wal-Marts in the sky.
For those who fear flying the worst thing is having a flight fright of some type while airborne. A sudden drop in air pressure, a door flying off unexpectedly, the captain screaming, “DUCK!!” is enough to make us promise ourselves that we’ll never ride anything faster than our vacuum cleaner, ever again.
ANXIETY is thought of as a negative emotion, but in fact it also serves us well in the short term. It warns us that things are threatening to implode around us, and we had better be preparing ourselves. Feeling anxiety before an important job interview, meeting your future in-laws for the first time, or even taking the garbage out on a dark night is normal, but if you feel anxiety every time you go to the bathroom, or have to make a decision between two brands of milk – indeed, most of the time, you have a phobia, not one of the more popular ones. Many online sites promise they’ll help you get rid of your phobia (for a price), but before you sign up for one, ask your doctor to help you conquer this problem. You might explore self-hypnosis or another treatment you’ve heard works. It’s a matter of getting in touch with your unconscious (hypnosis is probably the easiest, quickest way) and retraining it to connect different emotions than fear to the experience.
EMETOPHOBIA means fear of throwing up, vomiting, or spewing your breakfast all over the walls – a decidedly unwelcome phobia which will likely not get you invited to Charles’ Wedding.
Some practitioners belong to the old school of treatment that says the only way to stop the repulsive behavior is to do it again, and again, and again as often as you can, and when you can’t any more, watch films of other people doing it – a process known as “flooding.”. Others say all that’s not necessary, all you need to do is condition your mind to make vomiting a pleasurable activity!
Some phobias are more acceptable than their cures.
Another technique – counter-conditioning – involves exposing yourself to the phobia object while making an effort to relax. This is known as “systematic desensitization.” It was first used in 1958 by Joseph Wolpe. He first worked with his patients to get them to relax completely on command. Then a list of all the stimuli that triggered their fear was prepared, and little by little, using the list and relaxing techniques, they replaced their fear with calm.
INSOMNIA is one of the most dangerous of the phobias; a relatively small sleep deficit can easily drive you off a cliff, cause you to blurt out in a meeting that the CEO’s fly is unzipped or or tell your mother you are 99% sure you aren’t her child. People who have not slept for days have trouble with math, reading, deciding whether the light is red or green – if it goes on too long, it becomes extremely dangerous. Our moods may change from optimism to pessimism, unrelieved sadness, or downright despair that may lead to suicide. If you become so involved with your fear of not being able to sleep that it is keeping you awake, you need to see a doctor.
Sleep deprivation is a common problem, afflicting some 47 million adults in America – nearly one-quarter of the entire population! Persons who are sleep deprived may find their energy reserves have sunk to a new low, that they seem always in a bad mood (irritable) and that they can’t perform tasks, like driving, with their usual efficiency. Fear of not being able to sleep is perhaps the most sensible of the phobias. We may go for months without having to speak before a crowd, or meeting a spider, but sufferers from insomnia must face their fear every day.
If you suspect you have a phobia, the best thing to do is consult your doctor.