We’ve all been familiar with THAT sensation at least once in our lives:
…the sweatiness of the palms, the intense pounding of the heart to the point that you’re surprised your chest is able to contain it, the breathing becoming shallow and ragged almost to the point of hyperventilation, the feeling of utter dread at approaching the situation and your brain SCREAMING at you to get away once you’re facing your trigger head on…
Many different things can trigger this classic ‘fight or flight’ response caused by adrenaline (or epinephrine) pumping throughout our veins, but sometimes this response can be triggered inappropriately: this response is what is known as a phobia.
When is this response considered ‘appropriate’ then?
This response was integrated into us as a response to things that we considered a threat to our survival. We humans have managed to stand the test of time and become the predominant species on this planet due in part due to this response: to quote an old poker analogy, we figured out when to play our cards and when to fold them.
The way that this response works in nature is that when the hypothalamus in our brain calculates a potential threat, it sends nerve signals via the pituitary gland to the adrenal glands on top of your kidneys, which subsequently release adrenaline: this hormone works by diverting blood away from our ‘non-essential’ parts such as the digestive and reproductive systems and pushing it into our skeletal and cardiac (heart) muscles. This in turn causes our heartbeat and breathing rate to increase and our palms to become sweaty.
Some of the threats which are considered ‘natural’ threats include things which can potentially eat us, maim or kill us if we are not careful or things which can kill us via more insidious means such as poison (known as venom when referred to in the natural world). Some textbook examples include the following:
- Arachnophobia (spiders)
- Acrophobia (heights)
- Ophidiophobia (snakes)
- Selachophobia (sharks)
The media has only helped to perpetuate our fears of some of these creatures… I’m sure most of you are old enough to recall the classic Spielberg movie Jaws (duh dun…duh dun…). That one I’ve heard was responsible for discouraging many people from entering the water by playing on their fears of being eaten by species such as the formidable Great White shark despite the fact that more people die from lightning strikes each year than get eaten by sharks. On a personal note, I think they’re fascinating creatures and they should be respected as they have survived (as both underdogs AND as apex predators) before the time of the dinosaurs with little change in their makeup.
You may be familiar with this sensation in some nerve-racking situations such as stage fright or taking exams, but those aren’t considered phobias per se as it just means that you genuinely care about what is about to take place. Most of the time, when you have begun the event that is triggering your anxiety, the fear response begins to fade and you may even begin to find your groove after a while, but if you freeze up, it can become detrimental to your performance. I’ve experienced that once with one of my uni exams in my final year: I can recall my grades dropping massively as a result of my mind freezing up, but thankfully the buffer I had created before that day allowed me to pass the subject and earn my bachelors’ degree.
What are seen as ‘inappropriate’ phobias then?
Inappropriate phobias are such phobias which happen in response to something which may appear ‘dangerous’ to the person experiencing the fear, but when looked at from a rational standpoint, the actual trigger is far less dangerous than what they make it out to be. The adrenal response which flares up in response to something potentially life-threatening comes up in phobias where the actual risk to one’s life is minimal or even nil.
Such examples of common phobias include the following:
- Claustrophobia (enclosed spaces)
- Agoraphobia (open spaces)
- Trypanophobia (needle phobia)
- Coulophobia (clowns)
- Achulophobia (darkness)
- Iatrophobia (doctors)
- Dentophobia (dentists)
- Necrophobia (death)
- Pteromerhanophobia (flying)
- Mysophobia (I’ll discuss this more thoroughly in OCD)
- Social phobias (I’ll discuss these separately below)
Time to Own Up… My Own Personal Phobias
My own two fears are unfortunately considered as a hindrance in the workplace, particularly as I have chosen to work within medical science. One of them I was never afraid of until I had several traumatic experiences associated with the trigger, and the other one is a social phobia common within the modern day workplace but is often considered as taboo because in order to do well within the workplace, you need to be good with customer relations. I’ll talk about my own social phobia later on, but for now, I’ll talk about my first fear… needle phobia.
Unfortunately, I was not blessed with gorgeous veins like the rest of my immediate family: my thin, deep, spidery veins were a throwback whereas both of my parents have beautifully juicy veins ripe for venupuncture. This meant that it was a major struggle for me to visit the phlebotomist’s chair when I was a kid and I was kicked out by the Australian Red Cross when I tried to donate blood, despite the fact that I had both type O blood which is highly sought after and I passed all the other necessary criteria. I can still vividly remember the nurses looking at my veins and even before the first attempt, they said ‘nope, sorry, you’re not suitable, your veins’ll collapse under the flow we need.’ When I got older, the visits became more traumatic as some of the nurses had to resort to multiple attempts and/or blind jabbing in order to extract anything more than a couple of mililitres of blood from my arm. This inevitably led to the adrenaline levels soaring due to both the confinement and the pain that came from repeated stabbing: thankfully I never had a vaso-vagal (fainting) response, however there were a few close calls and there were times that I left the sheets soaking with sweat.
Unfortunately, this fear got in the way and ultimately cost me of one of my jobs which required me to take blood from patients from patients despite the fact that I am neither qualified as a nurse nor a phlebotomist. Now, upon looking back, I think the fact that I had been through these experiences made it difficult for me to detach and therefore hold a position of control over the patients I was taking care of. However, being in that position did help me to see from the other side and has given me ways to help me tackle the needle phobia head on. Nowadays, I have an idea of where my veins are hiding, and I can inform the person taking the blood where to aim and what techniques they should use in order to get it on the first attempt with the minimum amount of pain. Additionally, my experience as a medical scientist working in the hospital labs helps me to explain to them how much blood is really necessary for the tests being asked for, as annoyingly some nurses take the ‘just in case’ approach and therefore draw WAY more than is actually needed!
What are social phobias?
Social phobias are types of phobias which are related to interacting with other humans. They are often put in their own category, because the fear is usually isolated within the persons’ mind and they often hinder the person’s ability to successfully communicate within the workplace and in social situations that are not with family and close friends. This particular category of phobias include the need to communicate via means of technology since talking via the phone and via forms of online media such as e-mailing, Facebook and Twitter is very prevalent these days, particularly if you’re in an industry that relies on these forms of communicating to sell a product.
Some examples of social phobias include the following:
- Anthropophobia: fear of people or society
- Autophobia: fear of isolation
- Androphobia: fear of men
- Categelphobia: fear of being ridiculed
- Cyberphobia: fear of computers
- Telephone phobia: is self-explanatory
- Glossophia: fear of speaking in public
- Gynophobia: fear of women
- Sociophobia: fear of being evaluated by other people
- Xenophobia: fear of foreigners/people of other races
What is the second phobia you mentioned earlier?
The second phobia that I have is surprisingly common but is not often talked about. I find it funny that more recent forms of communication such as e-mail and Facebook I have no issues with; however, despite the fact that this technology was invented far earlier by Alexander Bell, it’s the one that gets me going. Also, it doesn’t happen every single time I use it: I have no problem with contacting people via the phone if I have met them previously face-to-face as I can relax and I know they are (usually) non-judgemental when I make mistakes, however talking with random strangers over the telephone still occasionally freaks me out. It’s usually when I have to be the voice of a company that the pressure’s on me, and I feel like I have to read from a script rather than just talk naturally. When this happens, I feel that if I start stuttering or speaking too quickly due to my nerves, that the person on the other side of the line would grow impatient with me: rationally, I know most people are patient, but there are always jerks out there and some who are stressed out and are therefore not as tolerant as they normally are. As a kid, I always thought that I was the only one that suffered from telephone phobia, however after learning that it is far more common than what I first thought, I’ve felt a little better about myself. From my experience with CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), it’s the fear of being perceived of being ‘incompetent’ or ‘stupid’ or being a ‘rambling fool’ that often gets in the way of me getting my view across successfully. I’m slowly getting better at it as (unfortunately) the only way to successfully conquer this fear is just to keep practicing. Rationally, I know that I’m probably better at it than what I perceive, as I was able to successfully earn my second job through a phone interview with a panel of three people, but the negative thoughts still have a way of occasionally creeping in…