Lateral thinking: Phobias can be healed

By R.S. Karunaratne | Published: 2:00 AM Mar 1 2021
Columns Lateral thinking: Phobias can be healed

By R.S. Karunaratne

A phobia is a fear, hatred, or extreme dislike of something, especially an irrational one. The term comes from the Greek word ‘phobos’ meaning fear. These irrational fears afflict millions of people throughout the world. However, modern therapeutic techniques have made this once virtually incurable form of mental illness quickly and reliably treatable. 

In the past when a person was diagnosed with psychotic physical symptoms such as hyperventilation, rapid heartbeat, nausea, and pressure in the head, doctors prescribed potent drugs. Sometimes the patient was sent to a mental asylum for treatment. However, those having irrational fears need not worry today as there are treatments. Unfortunately, many people are not aware of such treatments or where they are available.

According to medical sources, a phobia is sometimes misdiagnosed as anxiety neurosis, psychomotor epilepsy, or schizophrenia. The patient is usually given anti-psychotic drugs, tranquilizers, shock treatment or psychoanalysis. They are not effective in eliminating phobias. Today phobics need not worry too much as most hospitals are fully equipped to treat them. According to medical sources, 90 per cent of phobias are treatable.

Fears and anxieties 

Almost all of us experience fears and anxieties in life, but they disappear after some time even without treatment. However, if you have a phobia it will generate uncontrollable panic which requires some form of treatment. A phobic usually suffers from heart palpitations, shortness of breath, chest pain, sweaty palms, and dizziness. Sometimes, a phobic may fear that death is imminent. Some phobics go crazy over their phobias and they may need hospital treatment.

After the first attack, a phobic may try to avoid situations that might provoke his phobia. A person suffering from acrophobia will avoid climbing staircases as he fears heights. Similarly, some people are mortally scared of bathing in rivers or the sea as they suffer from aquaphobia. 

A close friend of mine always told others that he was having cancer without any medical examination. After some time he was referred to a cancer specialist who confirmed that he had no symptoms of such a disease. Even after a thorough medical examination he continued to tell others that he had a cancer. Later he was referred to a psychoanalyst who confirmed that he was suffering from cancerphobia.

Dominant concern 

Sometimes the phobia becomes the victim’s dominant concern, and bizarre behaviour patterns can emerge. I have heard of a truck driver who developed an unusual fear of driving. As he could not give up driving he handcuffed himself to the steering wheel when he was driving. These may be rare instances which need treatment.

When you live in congested cities, you can have a phobia about anything such as animals (zoophobia), machines (mechanophobia), mice (musophobia), corpses (necrophobia), snakes (ophidiophobia), or darkness (scotophobia). By far the most common is agoraphobia (fear of open places). Such phobics always look for safe places.

According to medical sources, the main cause of phobias is still unknown. A person subject to agoraphobia may have some biological reasons. Dr Thomas Uhde, a phobia authority at the National Institute of Mental Health in the United States said this type of phobic panic usually run in families. However, every member of such a family may not be subject to agoraphobia. Sometimes most victims of phobias get a panic attack after a major crisis in life such as divorce, loss of income, or death of someone in the family.


Women are more susceptible to agoraphobia than men. According to medical opinion, this may be due to the low levels of the hormone testosterone. Another reason may be that women are more dependent and less assertive than men.

The first person to develop a successful therapy for phobias was Dr Joseph Wolpe, Professor of Psychiatry at Temple University. In the 1960s he discovered that phobics could be trained to relax and gradually confront the phobia.

Today there are phobia clinics in developed countries where phobics are encouraged to confront their fears in real-life situations. Psychologists say if phobics could endure a feared situation for 15 to 20 minutes, the panic would go away. Another method is to divert the attention of phobics to different activities such as counting the number of vehicles on the road. Similarly, phobics need the help of sympathetic people to get rid of their phobias.

Some people are scared to ride in elevators. In order to get rid of the phobia, such a person should be taken in an elevator several times. After some time he will get rid of his phobia. If you are afraid to confront your fears, you will find it very difficult to recover.

Finally, what you have to remember is that phobia is no longer an incurable mental illness. Unfortunately, most people are not aware of modern methods to get rid of phobias. If you suspect that you are a phobic, consult a competent psychologist or psychiatrist.

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By R.S. Karunaratne | Published: 2:00 AM Mar 1 2021

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