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What are you scared of?
Health and beauty

What are you scared of?

Be it a fear of love, of an apocalypse, creepy crawlies or simply getting caught in the rain, there are literally hundreds of phobias, some more unusual than others

Isaac Asenjo

Madrid

Friday, 15 March 2024, 15:17

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You must be afraid of something. Denial would be stating a lie as we are talking about a basic human emotion. Experts go so far as to say that feeling no fear would have rendered us extinct a long time ago. Imagine if our bodies did not warn us about situations that could put us in danger! True, not all people react in the same way, but even the bravest person will have felt fear at some point. Cast your minds back. Maybe it is not as irrational as a phobia, but a justifiable fear: maybe of heights, of a certain creepy-crawly, of getting trapped somewhere or of flying through air turbulence. "We appreciate that feeling of fear rising up in the face of a real threat, as it is fulfilling a function that's been adapted for our very survival," says Judith Forns Pous, psychologist, expert in phobias and academic at the University of Barcelona.

The problem is that sometimes we can experience an irrational, excessive and uncontrollable fear triggered by something that represents no real danger at all, placing certain limits on our daily life and generating symptoms similar to those of anxiety. This is when fears become phobias, and their appearance is due to "a mixture of psychological, environmental and genetic factors or even bad experiences that have been poorly managed," explains Carolina Vázquez Morocho, clinical health psychologist and academic consultant at Deusto Salud.

"Most phobias stick around through constant avoidance of the feared object or situation, which means that people do not learn to manage the fear these can generate. Many phobias also originate from vicarious experiences, that is, from observation or imitation, or from shared stories," says Isabel Aranda, behavioural psychologist at TherapyChat.

Six per cent of population affected

Claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces), amaxophobia (fear of driving/ being driven) or agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) are some of the most well-known, but there are dozens more of every kind. Some 6% of Spain's population suffers from some type of phobia, according to data collected by the Spanish Society of Psychiatry and Mental Health. That percentage is likely to be higher as many sufferers will not consult their doctor for fear of being labelled as having 'a psychological problem'.

Apart from those with phobias of specific things, such as spiders or flying, and those with non-specific fears or with several 'assumed' fears, there are people with phobias of more extraordinary things and situations, deemed extraordinary because they are so rare. Some examples of irrational fears: of specific numbers (arithmophobia), of getting wet from rainwater (pluviophobia), of clowns (coulrophobia), of a certain colour (chromophobia), of contracting a venereal disease (cypridophobia), of the world ending due to environmental problems (ecophobia), of falling in love (philophobia) or of going to work (ergophobia).

Turning to our fears around the seasons of the year, one particular phobia is very seasonal: Samhainophobia is the fear of Halloween, a time of year specifically designed to trigger fear. However, for sufferers of Samhainophobia they will be afraid of anything and everything that Halloween entails, starting with all its associated iconography. In the case of this and other phobias, the symptoms that can manifest themselves range from palpitations, profuse sweating, a feeling of suffocation, numbness in all extremities and even extremely negative thoughts related to the fear of dying.

For sufferers of such phobias the experts stress the importance of turning to mental health professionals, as they will know how best to treat them, especially if such fears are negatively affecting their daily lives. It becomes essential when symptoms intensify or when that person must be irremediably exposed to the feared stimulus (for example, having to fly for work reasons when that person is afraid of flying).

The good news regarding these irrational fears is that they can be cured by working on them. Any bad news? Well yes, we would have to be exposed to our particular phobia. Of course, this is done in a "controlled, progressive and well-timed manner, in a safe environment and with cognitive behavioural therapy tools, where they are shown how to cope with all the physical symptoms and then, when any signs appear, we can work on them through neurolinguistic programming techniques," explains Morocho, who agrees with Forns on the importance of "restructuring all these emotions to learn to trust oneself," as well as acquiring the ability to face any adverse situation.

"The goal is not to become wholly at ease with whatever causes the fear, but to learn to face that fear with more resilience. It's the being able to choose whether or not you want to do such a thing because, when you have a phobia, you have no choice," sums up Carmen Rodríguez, director of the Psychological Intervention Area at Affor Health.

Never underestimate a childhood fear

In the case of children's fears, creating a safe family environment is essential. For example, if they are scared of ghosts, monsters or vampires – usually when aged 2 to 7 – "we must stay by their side, as exemplars of facing that fear, explaining to them what any of our fears are and how we face them". Humour is a powerful tool and so is storytelling - choose one with content about overcoming fears.

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