Mental Health A-Z: P is for Phobia

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Phobia is a word that is often thrown around too lightly. I’m guilty of doing it myself; my claim to have a ‘phobia’ of spiders is a little far fetched.

I’m just not that fond of them, they’ve got eight legs and a horrible amount of eyes and they do that horrid scuttle motion. Although thinking about it has made my skin crawl a bit, I can stand to look at spiders. Occasionally if I’m feeling really brave (or if I’m in a room full of other people that don’t like spiders) I may even catch one to put it outside. I’m not too keen on them, I definitely wouldn’t volunteer myself to take a bath with one but my affliction towards them is mostly based on the fact they’re so skittish. It’s absolutely definitely not a phobia though. It’s a fear. I believe there is a difference.


Phobias are nothing to be generalised, they are an often-debilitating development upon a fear. Generally, phobias have the power to affect day-to-day life as sufferers go out of their way to avoid whatever it is that triggers panic within them. Obviously not everybody’s phobia is encountered in every day situations. For example, if one is a sufferer of Aulophobia (the fear of flutes) it is just plain sense to avoid the limited places flutes can be found.

Phobias aren’t just as simple as being scared of something more than the average person is.


There are two different categories of phobia:


Specific Phobias: these phobias are based upon a single thing, be it an animal, activity person or place. For example, a friend of mine has a phobia of whales, all other large marine creatures are, if anything, loved by him. However whales have the power to bring him to tears.


The other category is complex phobias. These phobias tend to develop during adulthood and are generally more disabling than specific phobias. Normally they are rooted in a deep anxiety about a particular situation or circumstance, the most common being Agoraphobia (the fear of open spaces and public places) Sufferers from this phobia tend to avoid being alone, in large crowds or on public transport, which, as you can imagine, seriously affects their daily lives. These phobias are nothing to be overlooked.


Phobias mean business, but thankfully, nearly all of them can be cured! Cognitive behavioural therapy, psychotherapy and simple gradual introduction to the cause of the phobia can help change somebody’s life.


Spiders aside, I would argue that my genuine phobia is large bodies of deep water where your feet can’t touch the bottom. I’ve yet to find an actual name for this phobia as it seems to be a mixture of several different occurrences. All I can say is, the idea of going into a swimming pool makes me tremble, feel sick and embarrassingly has reduced me to tears. (I was 18, there were children in the pool looking concerned for me and the lifeguard was definitely ready to jump in and save me if I needed it.) I will probably never swim in the sea, or go scuba diving or do anything along those lines. Water polo is too much for me; the idea of slipping over and not having my feet firmly on the floor absolutely terrifies me.


Phobias have the power to grip us and make us blow everything out of proportion. When I was younger and all of my friends had swimming pool parties for their birthday, I was too ashamed to say I was absolutely terrified of swimming, so seven year old me probably alienated a lot of friends in her efforts to not have anything to do with the local indoor water park.

Even now, at 21, I will do a lot to avoid going in anything deeper than a puddle. Holidays by the pool are a big nope. I can’t think of anything less relaxing!


It’s not really known what exactly causes phobias, however a few associated factors include: a traumatic event (this is definitely my trigger), a learned practice perhaps from a young age of a family member’s own phobia and some scientists have even argued that genetics have a role to play. Whatever the reason behind them, they are real and not to be ignored.


My phobia of deep bodies of water definitely comes from the good old days of primary school swimming lessons. I had an absolutely vile teacher who didn’t seem to care much for my concerns about jumping in the deep end. If I recall correctly, I got pushed into the pool, which is, to this day, one of the most traumatic events of my life.


I know being scared of water isn’t as life changing as not being able to go outside. This isn’t to say that some phobias are worse than others. All phobias grip their sufferers in ways that are unimaginable to other people. They are real and a lot more common than people think. Thankfully we live in a day and age where phobias are taken seriously and help is available. We can all tackle our deepest fears, one step at a time.


As for me, I dream of the day that I can go swimming without children having to comfort me.

Becci Fell

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