By Seth Berger
A pounding heartbeat. Sweat trickling down your forehead. Sticky palms. Eyes widening. Fear. The quintessential emotion that was built into humans to warn us of possible dangers, pumping adrenaline into our brains. However, some humans have developed an irrational and persistent fear towards certain things, causing unwanted stress and melancholy. This is what is commonly referred to as a phobia. Postdoctoral fellow Katherina Hauner of Scientific American states that an estimated nine percent of Americans deal with phobias in their lifetime.
Phobias are developed as a result of various factors ranging from genetics to the environment. Although scientists have not discovered any specific phobia gene that could be affecting people, strong evidence indicates that the amount of genetic contribution affecting people with phobia could be ranging from 25 to 65 percent. Environmental factors often have to do with a traumatizing event that causes people to feel anxiety every time they are reminded of it. Despite researchers having discovered many factors associated with phobia, it is still incredibly difficult to identify the true cause of one’s fears, as the person themself is often not aware.
Keio University medical student Yuma Matsushita believes that there is more to phobia than people realize.
“There are actually many imaging studies that show that it has to do with alterations in the brain,” Matsushita said. “A lot of studies show that when the right amygdala is activated, people tend to feel almost the same level of distress that people have when they are triggered by their phobia.”
Matsushita is a strong supporter of identifying what really is causing these anxiety-inducing phobias, as he also believes that people struggle with the stigma associated with it.
A personal story on NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) extensively explains the terrors of having to deal with the “stigma monster,” fearing what others will think of when they learn that the person is mentally ill. The writer describes it as often being worse than the “anxiety monster” or the phobia itself, as she felt isolated and discriminated from others due to her illness. It did not help that many of her peers had a misconception about phobia. The writer had to deal with a situation where a friend thought that the anxiety she felt was only temporary, an issue that will solve itself eventually.
MVHS student Siya Digra has had many issues dealing with the stigma surrounding phobia, as she herself had emetophobia for many years.
“People would always think I was freaking out over nothing,” Digra said. “I remember there was a time when a girl thought I was just trying to seek attention.”
Psychologist Monica Dittrich explains that there are many possible ways that people with phobia can be helped, using methods that range from CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) to Systematic Desensitization Exposure Therapy.
“We start off slowly, since we want to try to have them build resilience towards their phobia,” Dittrich said. “Take a bird for example. We would start off practicing saying the word, and then have them try to imagine it, and eventually maybe even be in contact with it. This is one simple way that we get patients to overcome their fears.”
People feel fear at all different point in their lives. It is a signal of some form of threat that they feel. Phobia, on the other hand, is an irrational sense of fear that only brings distress. It is a hindrance to one’s life, as well as something hard to empathize with for the majority of people. The terror caused from the phobia as well as the stigma that comes with it is not something to be taken lightly.