Mar 28, 2013

Most People Genuinely Don't Understand Phobias

I’ve lived with a phobia as long as I can remember. I don’t know why it’s there, and I’ve never been able to fully overcome it. While it in itself is frustrating, it makes me sad when I realize that “most people” really don’t understand what the strain on someone’s psyche is when they have a phobia.

We’ve probably met people with arachnophobia, or claustrophobia - or at least recognize the term by name. I’ve heard people claim to have these phobias that genuinely did not express the symptoms of phobia when faced with their trigger - and people that do. I worry that the term is potentially overused in circumstances where it isn’t relevant. For reference, the former is like someone who really hates tomatoes, and the latter is like someone who is violently allergic to tomatoes - really quite different. The most common response given when I tell someone about my phobia is “Yeah, I don’t really like ______ either.” The extreme understatement of “I don’t really like” is astonishing.

Let me try to break it down for you. Mentioning the word gives me a shot of adrenaline equivalent to the epinephrine I get with the shot when my dentist numbs my teeth. Increased heart rate, tightness in the chest, and anxiety are obvious and immediate reactions - just to the mention of the word (and no - I’m not going to tell you what mine is, for that very reason). Someone with a phobia, when confronted by their trigger, is going to experience an uncontrollable and irrational fear of that trigger. A friend of mine with arachnophobia saw a tiny spider on their windshield while driving and was paralyzed by their fear and hyperventilating immediately. This lead to the rest of the car immediately in fear for their lives because the person driving could no longer focus on driving - all they could focus on was the fear and the source of that fear. I’m going to guess that most of you relate to the passengers - because a car without a driver is much more life-threatening than a tiny spider. Key point: not to someone with arachnophobia, that spider is far more terrifying than the uncontrolled motor vehicle. I got the spider and tossed it out the car, but they were still not okay. This is a feeling I’m familiar with, and even I should be better at recognizing and responding to it in others.

Now, to an outside observer - the level of fear is crazy over something that is not, in fact, life-threatening. True, it isn’t - but their subconscious responds as though they are under threat. If someone you knew was held up and their life was threatened while a gun was at their head - you would expect that level of fear. If they never wanted to go back to the place they experienced that trauma, or never wanted to see the person responsible again, or even if they wanted revenge for what was done to them - it probably wouldn’t surprise you. Yet it is the same level of fear experienced by people with phobias. When someone expresses that level of fear over something that isn’t actually life-threatening - the response is much different.

When I’ve experienced this fear, the expectation of people around me is often that I should be fine. Nothing traumatizing “actually” happened, so I should just get over it. I spend all of my energy repressing the trauma I’ve experienced - pretending I’m okay because that’s what everyone wants and expects from me. In reality, I’m really NOT okay. I get PTSD from my phobia - it’s not life-threatening, but I experience waking nightmares about every time I’ve encountered my trigger - including instances from over 20 years ago. I have trouble relaxing because when I stop for a second to think, or just be - that’s when my mind likes to torment me with every possible memory of my fear. I’ve been asked if I’d rather die or face my fear - I’d honestly rather die than be subjected to it intentionally even once. That once will become thousands of times in my lifetime that will haunt me in ways I don’t want to imagine, because I already know how much it haunts me now.

The worst of it is, I’ve grown a lot - I’ve learned a lot about my phobia, and I’ve accepted that others do not see it the way I do. And, most importantly - that I can’t blame them for that. That fear, and the repression of that fear leads to a lot of anger at the outside world. You want to cry out at them for not understanding your needs, punish them for torturing you, and ask them why they hate you so much because you can’t imagine that someone who likes or loves you could put you through that much pain. When really, they just don’t understand the level of intense emotions you’re feeling. They can’t even imagine them, because to them - your trigger is about as scary to them as the screen you’re currently reading this on.

Even in knowing this, I cannot control my fear. My fear is an inherent characteristic of my person because I started experiencing symptoms before I was old enough for preschool, and although I try to be better - I inevitably fail. Every encounter is a dice roll, and over time I’ve been able to lower the dc of my will save - but every roll changes the dc making it harder and harder to behave like a “normal” person. As in Russian Roulette, each click that isn’t loaded only raises the tension through the possibility that the next chamber is the one that’s loaded. Once I fail that will save - there is no turning back, the dam is broken and I am so far from okay that it will take me weeks to truly be myself again. You can look forward to anger, fear, depression, and anxiety flowing out of me for days. Then, after I’ve survived that phase, you can watch while I hate myself for all the shitty shit that I did while I was in that phase, and for all the raw emotional sewage that my trigger swept upon me. I hate myself for being this way. I wish I could magically make the fear go away too. I don’t enjoy any part of it, and it would be awesome if my trigger didn’t exist in the world so I would never have to face it again. Maybe then I could feel sane.

Please, be aware of this fear. When you know someone with a phobia, or see someone express this abject fear over something completely harmless to you - accept that they are afraid and that is all that matters. Get them away from their trigger, and do your best to be helpful if they want you to do anything they think will help them recover. Because honestly, there’s a phobia for nearly anything you can think of, and no matter how crazy it seems to you - the person experiencing that fear is living it in real time as though someone is about to kill them. It is not a joke, and it is out of their control. Also, no matter how many times you tell them they’re okay - they aren’t okay, but it’s okay that they aren’t okay - got it?


  1. Hi,

    Thanks for sharing that. A relative of mine posted your story on her Facebook. I wanted to say thank you for sharing your personal experiences. It can take courage to do that, and I commend you for it.

    What I'd like to know is what sort of treatment you ever had for your phobia. Things like desensitization training, cognitive behavioural therapy, and some forms of medications have been proven to help alleviate some of the symptoms some people have had as part of their phobia. Have you tried of of these, and if so, have you seen any improvement?

    1. Hi Chris,

      The only form of treatment I've had has been talking to a licensed psychologist about my phobia. They helped me come to terms with its core cause, and I've been infinitely better as a result. I am not "all better", but I certainly understand more and have better control over my reactions. So, perhaps I've experienced some CBT, but desensitization training would be difficult and possibly harmful for my particular phobia. I have never tried medication specifically for my phobia.

      I am someone who constantly wants to understand the "why?" logically and rationally. A phobia is precisely the opposite of logic and rationality. There was no logic or rationality behind what I'd experienced, and in talking with that psychologist - I found answers to those questions. I was extremely relieved, as though a great burden had been lifted - because it made sense. Knowing why allowed me to accept the reason for my reaction so I could face it and stop placing blame and anger on others. Sometimes I will feel the extreme reaction, adrenaline and all - but I face it with more strength. As I phrased it in the original post, my will save DC is much lower - I save myself from the extreme reaction significantly more often than I used to because it's easier. Which certainly qualifies as improvement. I probably would not have been able to post this blog without that influence.

      So, short answer: yes, and yes.

    2. Hi Sydney,

      I am very glad to hear that there was improvement after speaking to a psychologist. It sounds like it must of been almost enlightening to come to an understanding of the "why" behind the phobia. Especially for someone who values rationality and thinks logically (much like myself), it must have been like "lifting the veil" so to speak. Thanks for sharing that.

  2. Thank you so much for posting this. I relate so much to everything you have stated here and its nice to see somebody lay it out so rationally. I'll be posting this on my facebook so that others in my family might be more able to understand the phobia I life with.

    1. Thank you Nessa! I hope it helps!

  3. I really like this post, my friends constantly say things like oh, i must have a phobia of sharks (when we see one) and such like that, they do not understand what is actually going on. They tease me and as you described when i hear the word of which i am afraid of, I get a rush of adrenalin. I have recently taken to a place with loads of the animal and was lied to to be brought there and forced to walk near them. I was beginning to cry, beyond explainable words i was so mad at my friends. I feel like i cannot trust them sometimes. One day we will be outside and they will be like, go inside for a minute and remove the thing or sometimes they will talk and play with fake representations of the animal. I think more people need to be educated of what a phobia is, how the person feels like when the "get" or see the thing they are afraid of. Not everyone is mean to me about it but they do not realize what it actually means to me. When we in Florida, at night i happened to see from a distance, my fear.I immediately started to feel dizzy, hot and cold at the same time, overwhelmed. as i have read in an awesome artical, as it goes, (the author is afraid of butterflies) "How do I get people to understand it's NOT FUNNY to point out butterflies to me in order to scare me? Recently I was at a friend's and one of the aforementioned oversized moths was in the livingroom, albeit dead. When I saw it I ran into the bedroom and locked the door, shrieking. My friend's daughter's 20-year-old friend was over and decided it would be hilarious to slip it under the door at me. Yes I screamed and cried and had to have someone open the door and remove the pest. In his defense he was not aware of my phobia. (Here's a big hint moron: If I run screaming from something, don't chase after me with it.) A few days later, a tiny little moth was in the house and he said sarcastically to me, "Hey IndigoRain, there's a MOTH in the house!" This was most definitely a patronizing tone and not a helpful warning. I know many people don't understand my phobia - the most common replies I get are "but they're the most harmless creature on earth!" This is what i feel like, and people do not give a crap or understand what is going on

    1. Fiona,

      I'm so sorry that your friends have been so cruel. Hopefully it is a lack of understanding, and not malice. I wrote this to try and explain to a person without phobia how to understand and interact appropriately in circumstances like that.

      In some ways I've been lucky because my phobia isn't something as "harmless" as butterflies, or perhaps your animal. So I haven't had to struggle in the manner described by the stories you shared.

      Additionally, there is a tendency for people to take the notion that exposure to our triggers will make us less susceptible to them. I believe that this is only true in cases where the individual with the trigger accepts this exposure. Unduly exposing someone with a phobia to their trigger without their consent is cruel, in my honest opinion. So, I hope that as you educate your friends they are willing to respect your phobia.

      All the best,

  4. Hi, thanks so much for this. I feel too that 90% of the population say they have a phobia of something, like it's no big deal, when in fact they just dislike something in a certain situation. It downplays real phobias, and makes it seem like someone who really has a phobia is just being dramatic.

    I have Nyctophobia and Ornithophobia to the point where I am crippled in a situation where these are present. Unfortunately these are things you cannot avoid. I am 25 and I sleep with my TV on, bathroom light on and I have little rituals I need to do in order to even think about sleeping. The duvet is tucked in under my body, summer or winter, pulled up over my head with a little air tunnel so I can breathe. Even then, I cannot stop picturing horrific images of things in my cupboards, under my bed... I wake up most mornings with cramps and stiffness from being so stressed through the night.
    My husband work away and I am alone most of the time. We have regular blackouts, always at night (Yay), and I get so stressed I cry and sit in a corner with my torch. We had to get a generator so I can at least have light.
    I am nervous about passing it onto my son, I mean he can see Mommy crying and shaking and sees me sleeping with lights on.
    Birds are something that bring me down badly. Some shops have birds that fly inside and sit in the rafters, I drop everything and get the hell out of there. Recently a dove flew into my house and I couldn't breathe I had to leave. My son was sleeping in his room and I couldn't get back into my house. I had a panic attack, crying, couldn't breathe, I had to call my neighbor to help me. Medication was taken and when I eventually could go back inside, there were feathers everywhere and that took me to a whole new level of terrified.
    Being outside is something I struggle with, birds are everywhere and it is really debilitating.

    I think more awareness should be made about true phobias, so if I say I have a phobia about going near a pet shop when I can hear the birds screeching, someone doesn't say something ignorant like Oh I don't like birds either.

    A phobia is a real deal, please don't mock us or put us in the situation to get a few laughs for your own pleasure.


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