What are you afraid of?

Janet Leigh received an Oscar nomination for her performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror film Psycho. After viewing the famous shower scene, in which she was repeatedly stabbed, Leigh was seized with an overwhelming and lasting terror.

“I stopped taking showers, and even now I take only baths,” she told The New York Times 35 years after the movie was released. In fact, when the actress stayed in a hotel or at a friend’s home where only a shower was available, she reportedly frightened. “I make sure the doors and windows of the house are locked,” she said, “and I leave the bathroom door and shower curtain open. I’m always facing the door, watching, no matter where the shower head is.”

What Leigh experienced is considered aberrant. Psychiatrists called them as phobia. It is defined as “intense and persistent fear of a specific object, situation, or activity.” Because of this intense and persistent fear, the phobic person often leads a constricted life. The anxiety is typically out of proportion to the real situation, and the victim is fully aware that the fear is irrational.

Phobias go back a long way. Take this account of one phobia, written by a famous physician. “The girl flute player would frighten him; as soon as he heard the first note of the flute at a banquet, he would be beset by terror.” Fear of the flute is called aulophobia, and the doctor describing the condition was Hippocrates.

One person’s wind section can make another person writhe in fear. Agoraphobics rarely go anywhere. They suffer from a fear of being separated from safe persons and places, and some won’t even leave their homes. Claustrophobics, on the other hand, hate being confined, while panophobics fear everything.

“Just name it,” says Dr. Jerilyn Ross, an American psychologist who specializes in phobias. “There are many different kinds of phobias as they are different kinds of people.”

Phobias can be slippery things. It’s not always clear when an aversion to cockroaches becomes something more serious. The signs are not just physical reactions but also emotional ones: Do you fret about the object of your phobia? Do you alter your life to avoid it?

A few yes or no questions – from ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ — can help you take the measure of your fear.  Do you:

  • have a persistent and excessive fear of an object or situation, such as flying, heights, animals, blood or being in a public place form which there is no escape?
  • experience symptoms, including pounding heart, trembling, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, weak knees, dry mouth, feelings of unreality, feelings that you may go crazy or die, when you think of or encounter the object or situation you fear?
  • have excessive and ongoing fear of social situations, such as going to the mall, the parties or a restaurant?
  • have fear that you will be judged or will humiliate yourself socially?
  • fear traveling without a companion?
  • fear that people will notice that you are blushing, sweating, trembling, or showing other signs of anxiety?
  • take elaborate, excessive steps to avoid the object or situation you fear?
  • find that your fears or your reactions to them have interfered with your ability to function at home, professionally or socially?

If you answered yes to these questions, experts claim, you have to see a doctor immediately. “A phobia is hard to bear but it treatable,” says the American Psychiatric Association.

“I must not fear,” Frank Herbert wrote in Dune. “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

“Fear is the most destructive force in the world today,” notes Walter Stone. “It is much easier to frighten people, and more profitable, than to persuade them.” This must be the reason why horror movies like Friday the 13th, Nightmare on the Elm Street, and 1408, among others are making money at the box-office.

“Fear causes people to draw back from situations; it brings on mediocrity; it dulls creativity; it sets one up to be a loser in life,” observed Fran Tarkenton. People – intelligent people, if you will – retreat once their loved ones are threatened. People experience fear because fear is often equated with danger, imminent pain or death.

Gavin Becker, author of The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence, pointed out: “When we get a fear signal, our intuition has already made many connections. When you feel fear, try to ‘link’ it back to a past situation where the feeling that was similar to see if your fear is, in fact, justified.”

When you feel it, take notice to find the link back to see if you need to take action. How rational are our fears? In the 1960s, an American study was done on what single word evoked the greatest psychologically strong reactions of fear. The study included words like spider, snake death, rape, murder and incest.

Shark evoked the strongest reaction. But why sharks? After all, they rarely come in contact with human beings. The study found three strong reasons: the seeming randomness of their strike, the lack of warning for it and the apparent lack of remorse. Are you still wondering why many people didn’t go swimming in the beach after the blockbuster movie, Jaws, was shown?

Who fears most – men or women? Here’s a startling statement taken from an article which appeared in the newsweekly Time: “Over the years, researchers have made much of the fact that the large majority of phobia sufferers are women – from 55% for social phobias an up to 90% for specific phobias and extreme cases of agoraphobia.”

Fears of men and women differ. Sylvanus and Evelyn Duvall share: “The fears of men are more likely to center around money and careers, illnesses, and going to a dentist. The fears of women center more around love and marriage, snakes, spiders, growing old, getting fat, and staying alone at night. Women are likely to express their fears through tears. Men are more likely to commit suicide – it might be better if they cried more.”

But there is another side to fear. “Not all fears are bad,” said C. Neil Strait. “Many of them are wholesome, indeed, very necessary for life.” “Fear can be valuable when you decide to put it to use,” points out The Daily Motivator. “The purpose of fear is not to stop you, but to prepare you. Fear is strong and compelling, and it can certainly be transformed into an excuse for not taking action. Yet that same strength can also be directed in a more positive way, in a way that will, rather than stopping you, make your actions more effective.”

More often than not, fear heightens your awareness of any situation. “That can give you a tremendous advantage,” says The Daily Motivator. “Fear points out what can go wrong, so you can be ready for the obstacles which arise. Fear gives you energy and excitement which can be channeled into enthusiasm.”

The fear of the Lord, the Bible states, is the beginning of wisdom. “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God,” advises Anne Frank. “Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature.” — ### 

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