By Jocelyn Gardner '17
Mental Health Columnist & Webmaster
We’ve all seen those “fun” quizzes and graphics on the internet covered in pictures of spiders, skyscrapers, and clowns with the bright, fun title, something along the lines of, “25 Most Bizarre Phobias” or “What Phobia Do You Have?”
I hate to rain on your parade (not really. In fact, I really want to rain on this parade.), but there is absolutely nothing fun about a phobia.
All my life, I’ve heard a lot of garbage about phobias. “They are fun personality quiz topics. They are fake. They are for attention. They are not a mental illness. People can just ‘get over’ them. People with phobias are ‘scared’ of something. The treatment for phobias is to face the fear head-on.” All of these statements are myths, at least to some extent. (More on this later.) They are also all very invalidating, infantilizing, and dripping with stigma. While I feel like people have made some progress on understanding more about the most well-known conditions like depression (to clarify, they are still light years away from where they should ideally be, in terms of destigmatization), people overlook phobias.
So, what exactly are they? If you Google it, you’ll see that the accepted definition is an intense, irrational dread or fear of something specific. You commonly hear about arachnophobia, which translates as “fear of spiders.” I hear a lot of people who dislike spiders claim they are arachnophobic. If you had severe arachnophobia, you’d know that you would probably check the corners and the walls of rooms to make sure there are no spiders. You might avoid going into basements and garages. If you see one, you’ll have a sudden physiological reaction, which can include symptoms such as tight throat, muscle tension, rapid heart rate, trembling, dizziness, avoidance behaviors, sleep difficulty and tiredness. There are other symptoms very similar to anxiety or panic attacks, which people are generally more familiar with.
This is no joking matter. Some people are prevented from living normal lives because of their phobia(s). Phobias also can spread. They can be learned, and often are caused by a traumatic encounter. They also feed on association, so people who already have one or more phobias often develop more phobias that branch off of their original one(s).
Some people who know someone with a phobia take it upon themselves to “cure” them via exposure. First, the need to “cure” someone is quite ableist [see “Disability 101” in the Unofficial Scripps Survival Guide—accessible via thescrippsvoice.com—for more information on ableism, or reach out to the amazing people at the Disability, Illness, and Difference Alliance (DIDA) or the Student Disability Resource Center (SDRC)]. Exposure is something that the person with the phobia should be in control of: never surprise someone with a phobia with the subject of the phobia. This is flooding. Flooding can further traumatize the person. Basically, it comes down to consent and autonomy: you do not have a right to “help” someone, no matter how noble your intentions are, unless this person gives their informed consent. While exposure therapy can be effective, it is not up to you to decide when, where, how or if it should happen. (For example, you wouldn’t give someone a surprise surgery while they are sleeping…) I wrote about this consent issue in my trigger warning pieces that can be found in other issues of The Scripps Voice and the Survival Guide.
Returning to the dangers of flooding and surprise therapy, inappropriate exposure can broaden the scope of the phobic associations and can increase avoidance. Phobias are deeply rooted in human survival mechanisms (think “fight or flight”). The processes which govern fear are one of the strongest instincts humans have, so anything that works off that is a very complicated and difficult condition.
Phobias are anxiety disorders, like PTSD, generalized anxiety, and OCD (depending on what diagnosis guides you look at). None of these or other mental health conditions should be taken lightly or joked about. If someone tells you they have a phobia, believe them, and try to remember. Often, if the phobia subject is something commonplace, friends will bring it up and trigger the person with phobia unwittingly. As with any other mental illness, the best thing to do as an ally is to offer your nonjudgmental support and to respect your friend’s agency and dignity.
Again, as interesting as it is to read about the ridiculously long names of phobias, phobias themselves are not a joke.