Breathes there a man with soul so dead, who never has a fear in his life indeed! “Fear is the most destructive force in the world today,” said Walter Stone. “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,” Fran Tarkenton deplored.
Phobia is how medical science calls those morbid or aberrant fears. It is defined as “a persistent fear of an object or situation in which the sufferer commits to great lengths in avoiding, typically disproportional to the actual danger posed, often being recognized as irrational.”
“People who have a phobia avoid situations that trigger their anxiety and fear, or they endure them with great distress,” notes The Merck Manual of Medical Information. “However, they recognize that their anxiety is excessive and therefore are aware that they have a problem.”
There are thousands of phobias and a person can suffer from one or several of them. However, psychologists and psychiatrists classify them into three categories: agoraphobia, social phobia, and specific phobias.
Although agoraphobia literally means “fear of the marketplace,” the term more specifically describes the fear of being trapped, often in a busy place filled with people, without a graceful and easy way to leave if anxiety becomes severe.
“Typical situations that are difficult for people with agoraphobia include standing in line at a bank or supermarket, sitting in the middle of a long row in a theatre or classroom, and riding on a bus or airplane,” the Merck manual points out. “Some people develop agoraphobia after experiencing a panic attack in one of these situations.”
Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, who coined the term “anxiety attack,” suffered most of his life from agoraphobia. The late Marilyn Monroe and Oscar-winning actress Kim Basinger have this kind of fear, too.
Social phobia is described in the standard psychiatric manual as “a marked and persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations.” The disorder has two common patterns: Some people are pathologically shy from infancy, while others – also shy – become pathological when puberty hits.
“About 13 percent of people have social phobia sometime in their lives, the disorder affects about 9 percent of women and 7 percent of men during any 12-month period,” the Merck manual claims. “Men are more likely than women to have the most severe form of social anxiety, avoidant personality disorder.”
Believe it or not, Academy Award-winning British actor Lord Laurence Olivier once suffered from severe stage fright. Multi-awarded singer-actress Barbra Streisand also has a certain type of social phobia.
American singer Donny Osmond grew up performing with his family and experienced stage fright for the first time at age 6. Later during a stage production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat Osmond experienced a panic attack while onstage. His anxiety soon seeped into his everyday life, making him afraid to go out in public.
Michelle Pfeiffer, best known for her roles in the films The Fabulous Baker Boys, Scarface, Batman Returns and Dangerous Liaisons has talked publicly about being shy and fearful of small talk and how she has grown: “I was the kind of person who entered a room, found the nearest corner and hoped no one noticed me before it was time to go home. Now I’m better at socializing.”
A specific phobia is an irrational fear of specific objectives or situations. Andre Agassi may ace many of his serves, but if a spider happens to crawl onto the court, his steely composure may crack, as he suffers from arachnophobia. Johnny Depp has clourophobia of fear of clowns. “Something about the painted face, the fake smile,” the actor told reporters once. “There always seemed to be a darkness lurking just under the surface, a potential for real evil.”
Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Europe but was crippled throughout his life by ailurophobia, the fear of cats. Other famous people who had the same fear were William Shakespeare, Benito Mussolini, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, and Dwight Eisenhower.
Edgar Allan Poe suffered for much of his life from claustrophobia, a disorder that also endured Ronald Reagan, Harry Houdini and Adolf Hitler. Queen Elizabeth I is said to have been terrorized by roses, a sub-category of anthophobia, a generalized fear of flowers.
“Specific phobias, as a group, are among the most common anxiety disorders but are often less troubling than other anxiety disorders,” the Merck manual says. “During any 12-month period, about 13 percent of women and 4 percent of men have a specific phobia.”
Phobias indeed are no joke to people who have them. They can limit life. They can make you feel weak and helpless. They can cause panic, heart heartbeat, shortness of breath and trembling.
Like many psychiatric disorders, anxiety disorders in general, and phobias in particular vary wildly in degree. Some phobias are mild that they could hardly be considered psychiatric disorders.
“Very few people actually seek treatment for them,” says Charles Nemeroff, an American psychiatrist at Emory University. “It’s not as if people who are terrified of snakes come into my office because it is the only thing standing in the way of a career as a herpetologist.”
But there are those who sought treatment, especially if their fears interfere with their work. Barbra Streisand’s phobia reportedly started in 1967, when she was on stage and forgot the lyrics to the song she was singing. After that experience, she began to fear that she would embarrass herself and gave up singing in public for quite a while. Through medication and therapy, she learned to control these fears and began to sing in public again in 1994.
“Not all fears are bad,” commented C. Neil Strait. “Many of them are wholesome, indeed, very necessary for life. The fear of God, the fear of fire, the fear of electricity, are life-saving fears that, if heeded, bring new knowledge to life.”