Phobias come in all forms

Published 10:29 pm Thursday, May 12, 2011

The fear of clowns, heights, water or spiders are some of the millions of common fears and according to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in four adults, or nearly 58 million Americans, suffer from one or several phobias.

Some of the most common phobias are the fear of spiders (arachnophobia), fear of snakes (ophidiophobia), fear of heights (acrophobia), fear of situations in which it’s difficult to escape from (agoraphobia), fear of dogs (cynophobia), fear of thunder and lightning (astrophobia), fear of injections (trypanophobia), fear of flying (pteromerhanophobia), fear of germs and dirt (mystophobia) and social phobias.

Ronieta Thomas-Yates, licensed professional counselor and associate director of Auburn University Montgomery Counseling Center, said fears are common but become phobias when they debilitate a person to the point he or she can’t function normally.

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“A phobia becomes a psychiatric illness when it induces a profound impairment for an individual to perform a task,” Yates said. “Phobias can be specific, such as fear of elevators, spiders or planes, social or performance situations, like being afraid to perform in front of someone, hold a conversation or speak in public, and agoraphobia, the fear of leaving a safe place or being in an open public place.”

Martha Mullins, Selma native and music teacher, has three phobias that date back to her childhood.

“I have fear of spiders, dying and heights,” Mullins said. “I’m deathly afraid of spiders and the thought of them and dying depresses me. Growing up I loved to climb trees and one day when I climbed my grandmother’s cherry tree, thousands of spiders crawled out of the tree and started to bite me. I thought I was going to die.”

Mullins recalled how her mother’s best friend would occasionally throw Daddy Long Legs in her hair as a joke after her debacle, which only strengthened her disdain for the creatures.

“She thought it was funny, but it terrified me,” Mullins said. “I have health problems, and I’m afraid of suffocating or not having enough air. When I think about my health, getting up too high off the ground or of spiders, I have bad panic attacks and start to hyperventilate. Meditating on positive things and calming myself down usually helps though.”

Yates said there are a number of therapeutic procedures available for phobia sufferers.

“The primary therapy is called ‘cognitive behavioral therapy,’ where we assist the client in identifying and challenging the irrational thoughts associated with fears and recondition their thought process,” Yates said.

“We can do that in combination with psychotropic drugs, or tranquilizers, and exposure therapy, a technique we use to safely expose clients to the identified fear by real or imagined exposure.”