Friday, October 22, 2010


Apparently Lissa's little bout with a spider touched a nerve with some folks - the comments keep on coming, both at her post and at my link. It got me to thinking about phobias in general, about those that I personally possess and the reasons for them, as well as how we can deal with them. I thought it might be interesting to chuck out some ideas. Generally, we tend to be afraid of things out of either ignorance (think guns) or because of specific incidents.

I have two irrational phobias:
  • Flying. I am not what you would call a good flyer. I'm not even a white-knuckle flyer - if I have to get on an airplane, it's generally with a good amount of "medication" and trepidation. I come by it honestly - I flew out of Tampa, FL ahead of a hurricane and we ran into turbulence so bad that it a) frightened the flight attendants; b) caused us a moment or two of actual free-fall; and c) so thoroughly scared the hell out of me that I said the Lord's Prayer in English and French. I also had a close call landing in Boston where the air traffic controller tried to land us on top of another plane...
  • Large dogs. I got bitten pretty bad by a German Shepherd when I was 5 - you're not supposed to pet a guard dog when they're eating, go figure - and have been scared silly of large dogs ever since. Shepherds, pit bulls, Dobies, Bull mastiffs, etc. all have me terrified; even labs and retrievers make me a little nervous unless I know them.

I find it interesting that my two phobias because they're similar but different. Both arise from specific incidents in my past for their genesis; one is a primal fear, the other far more recent; both arise from genetic and conditioned responses that humans have developed over time. The fear of dogs - I'd extrapolate to a general fear of larger predators - is obviously a survival instinct, handed down in our genetic code from the days when we had to fight to stay at the top of the food chain. It's a hindbrain, primal urge to run like hell when faced with something that could potentially eat us - pure flight response.

Flying is more recent, obviously, but with roots going back certainly as far as man himself. There are twin concepts at work here - there's the loss of control one experiences when getting into an airplane as well as the generalized fear of falling. When you step on board an airplane, someone you have never met is going to apply sufficient thrust to get a large metal tube airborne and hurtling along at speeds up to 500-600 MPH. You have no idea if the pilot is the greatest pilot who ever grabbed a yoke or someone who washed out of 15 flight schools before dropping enough cash in the Bahamas for a certificate - and you're trusting this unknown with your very life. We've also got a built in altimeter - we instinctively know when we have reached the height at which a fall will kill us - so not only are we at the mercy of a stranger, but we will die when we hit the ground.

There's little I can do to overcome my fear of dogs. I'm allergic, so getting a pet that's a large dog isn't possible. Were I not allergic I could find a Shepherd puppy and and bond with it from an early age, helping me see it grow from a baby into a full grown dog. I could volunteer at an animal shelter, where I would interact with many different large(r) dogs and recondition myself to them - seeing them in a friendly light rather than in an aggressive light. Since I happen to prefer breathing, I'll keep my distance - and my fear.

Flying's a little tougher. On a purely logical level, I know my fear is completely irrational. I ride a motorcycle. I've even been known to ride without a helmet on occasion. On a logical level, I know that I am about 10,000 times more likely to die riding my Harley than in an airplane crash. I've had enough close calls on the bike to know that people generally are pretty damn clueless, and when they outmass you 4-5 to 1 they don't give a rat's ass about you. Yet I'll get on my Harley without hesitation, because I'm in control. After the first incident out of Tampa, I flew for my (previous) job on a regular basis - every other month roughly. While I was apprehensive about flying, the repetition (and subsequent eventless flights) helped me get over my fear. Momentarily...

We develop fears for both rational and irrational reasons. Some are superstitions with no basis in fact or genetics; others are ingrained from terrifying experience; still others come completely out of the blue. We can work to overcome our fears, develop ways of working around them, or, in some cases, only face them once in a great while. The trick, obviously, is to not let your fears rule you or the choices you make in life, and understanding both the basis for the fear and having a plan to deal with it helps immensely.

That said, what are your irrational (or rational) fears?

That is all.


Sean D Sorrentino said...

Ladders. the edge of buildings. Anything tall. I used to be a paratrooper, and to this day if you want me to, I'll rig up and jump out of a plane. I still hate heights. I still hate being on a ladder or on the edge of a rooftop. I'm always afraid I'm going to fall.

Jay G said...


I actually had that same fear as a young man; it comes from (at least for me) falling out of a tree or two as a young'un.

It's not so much the fear of heights as it is the fear of heights from an unstable platform.

I dealt with it by painting houses. You lose *all* of that fear when you're 2½ stories up in the air on a ladder that's propped up with boards and a rock on one side and all of a sudden bees come swarming out of the attic vent you were scraping...

Anonymous said...

I used to get uneasy, at times, when on ship over very deep water in the Pacific.

Since I wasn't all that far from the Marianas Trench there was a lot of deep water to be uneasy about.

The idea of drowning bothered me but less than the thought of the looong drift downward.

I used to think I was afraid of earthquakes until my parents informed me that I'd already slept right through several by the time I mentioned them.

Butch Cassidy said...

High Edges - Heights don't bother me, standing on an edge makes my heart call me stupid. No margin for error on an edge, a step back and I'll hang out all day.

Drowning - When I was two, my parents say I pretty much had gills. When I was three a babysitter took me swimming. My parents never found out what happened, but I was four before they got me back in water without screaming. I'm a certified diver, I love jumping into icy water, snorkling is great fun, love boats. I still have nightmares about drowning.

Uncovered Windows At Night - After a break-in when I was a kid, I get paranoid whenever I am in a room at night with no shades over the windows. I hear the Dutch have a tradition of not even putting shades in their houses, screw that.

Life-like Dolls - A porelain doll display? Fine. A pile of realistic dolls? Whatever. One singular doll with a life-like pose in an odd spot? I'm out of the room in a blink.

bluesun said...

You know, it's really more of a specific circumstances thing for mae than any one thing. Out in the dark? Usually I'm fine. Until that one time that I remember that story someone told we where the clouds grew faces at night and that just freaks me out.

And I'm not afraid of heights, honest! I'm just afraid of losing my balance...

George said...

I used to rock climb, so heights don't bother me.

Snakes. I hate snakes. I saw a TV show when I was a kid about someone who got bit by a rattlesnake. I'm OK if they are behind glass, but unrestrained makes me nauseous.

Sabra said...

I have come to realize I have fears rather than phobias. There's nothing that negatively impacts my daily life anymore.

I am afraid of heights. I hate being out of control. There's no good reason for the heights thing, but there it is. I fully expected to be afraid of flying...and then discovered it's the most exhilarating thing! I was amazed.

I had an irrational fear of general anesthesia. The control thing again. Then I had to have it, and discovered it was about 10,000 times more pleasant than spinal anesthesia.

I found out the hard way that my control issues play hell with natural childbirth. The pushing. I flipped out. The classical phobic reaction. I intend to have a lot more control over things this time around (there were people holding onto me last time).

Most embarrassing--a childhood phobia of construction equipment. I've got it calmed down to a fear now, but it took years of work, and if I'm around, say, a Dumpster truck in the dark (where I can't see the driver), I still get frightened.

I did learn in AbPsych that a lot of phobias have a strong cultural component. We're cultured to fear snakes. I didn't get that acculturation because I grew up with them as pets (I've been told I teethed on the family python as a baby).

Oh, and I'm scared of cockroaches. The big suckers that fly. We had an infestation when I was a small child, and one time when I was reaching to turn on the light in the bathroom a whole bunch of them ran over my hand. I still retch thinking about it. Now it just takes one to scare me, but I don't run out of the room anymore. ;-)

The Armed Canadian said...


I share the irrational fear of flying. But mine is really screwed up for the fact that I've flown light aircraft as a student. I actually love to fly.

It's all about the control thing. I am not the one with my hands on the controls and I don't like that at all.

But to compound it because of my lifelong love of aviation, I know *WAY TOO MUCH* about flying, technology and most critically, the ways in which airplanes don't arrive at their destinations in the same number of pieces they left in.

I am absolutely terrified of dying in a plane crash. Ever since the Valuejet 592 when not just bad maintenance could kill people that I have been progressively getting worse. The trip I needed to take from DC to Miami required serious medication to get me on the plane.

I literally white knuckle the climb out and especially the landing portions to the point of a panic attack. Until the thrust reversers and brakes kick in, I'm convinced I'm about to die.

Completely irrational, I know. Doesn't help. My wife compromises a bit and understands this terrifies me. And I won't ever fly an Airbus again. I do not trust the design of the Airbus airplanes. The fundamental philosophies between the design of the Airbus and Boeing flight control systems are different and I do not trust the Airbus control laws.

I have told my wife to rebook flights onto Boeing equipment. Much more conservative designs that leave humans obviously in control and will let the pilots bend/break the airplane without making sure the computer is in the right mode. Quite a few spectacular crashes involving Airbus planes suffering from crew training and computer management issues.

LabRat said...

I'm with Butch- edges are my primal terror. I'm actually not afraid of heights in general at all; trees and ladders and high buildings with rails I'm fine with.

There's actually a specific origin for my fear- visiting the Grand Canyon when I was young and watching my father, during a rim hike, slip on the gravel and land with ankles out over dead space.

I am now recognizable in any group photograph at canyon edge as the person several feet away from it, looking away. Seeing other people close to edges makes me sick with fear.

Bryan Reavis said...

I'm with Sean about the ladders/edges of buildings thing. It's not the fall (free fall was one of the niftiest things I ever experienced), it's that sudden stop at the end that bothers me.

I've also developed a strong fear of burning, drowning and being eaten alive (i.e. shark/bear attack). Not unjustified fears I feel and not things that I allow to rule my life, but things I avoid placing myself in jeopardy of.

Phillip said...

Snakes. My mother was deathly afraid of snakes and she passed the phobia on to me. I get excited seeing a snake slithering down the road when I'm driving a vehicle. If I don't know one's there and I walk up on it in the wild, I can manage a standing free jump that could set a world's record. However, I can walk up to them in a zoo and stare at them for ages, they're fascinating... provided they're behind glass and can't get to me.

Other than that... Werewolves. Yes, I know they don't exist. And I love horror movies and books, including ones with werewolves, but I watched Stephen King's Silver Bullet when it first came out and it scared the bejeezus out of me. I still get very much on edge when I watch a werewolf movie. Eh, what'cha gonna do?

Strangely, I'm not afraid of heights, and I fell off a 40 foot cliff and managed to shatter some important stuff on the way down. Got a little nervous when I revisited the site of the fall, but I'm still fine with high places.

David said...

My cousin and I were crawling through a lilac bush when I was younger and I hit my head on a yellow jackets nest. We both got stung - a lot. I had over 200 stings on my head, arms and shoulders, my cousin about 200 over his upper body.

We were both very sick for several days, ran fevers near or at 105. Spent a lot of time in ice baths trying to lower our fevers.

Now 40 years later whenever he sees a stinging insect he screams and runs away. I will swat them, ignore them, grab them with my bare hands and toss them out of the window. I have plucked wasps and bees off peoples shoulders, crushed them with my fingers and tossed them away. Sure I get stung occasionally - and it hurts when I do, but its really not a big deal. After all its only one.

Now if that one comes at me with 200 of his closest friends I'll be right next to my cousin - screaming and running.

We don't know why we came out of that incident with such different attitudes. Neither of us can fathom the others reactions to wasps and bees. Then a few years ago my cousin was stung by another yellow jacket and had a pretty bad allergy attack from it. So out of curiosity I went out and got one to sting me - no reaction beyond the normal hole, localized redness and a little pain.

Skip said...

I think most people are afraid of the unknown.
Being afraid of big dogs is natural if you don't know the dog, guns if you have never shot one, etc.
Control is a very valid point.
If you can control it you know it. If you can't you are afraid it may hurt you.

Laura said...

I was afraid of dogs, for the exact reasons you are- when I was 5, I decided to touch a relative's guard dog while it was eating.

For the past few years, I've been working really hard at getting over the fear. First it was with just spending time being in the same room as a Golden Retriever while breathing deeply and trying not to cry. Last year, a friend of a friend got a German Shepherd puppy, and I decided to see if I could pet it. It was so adorable and tiny, I could! But then it nipped my hand and started gnawing on it, and I kind of freaked out. But after calming down, I decided that pushing myself was a good idea- I went back in the room and let the puppy gum at my hand.

I still can't touch adult German Shepherds, but it's not as crazy debilitating as it used to be. If I see one out in public, I don't freeze up and start to panic like I used to. (Yes, Seeing Eye Dogs used to make me cry.)

And that's why I try to take as many as my anti-gun friends shooting. Because time and time again, they realize "Oh, that wasn't so bad!" after shooting a gun. I'd say half of them are anti-gun simply because they're terrified, and are convinced that a gun will go off randomly.