Updated 06 October 2014

Uncommon phobias and how to handle them

Phobias are often irrational fears, but they can make life difficult, and in some cases, even affect your health and relationships. CyberShrink addresses some uncommon phobias.


For some people, certain fears are overwhelming and normal coping mechanisms don't work.  Phobias aren't rational fears, but they can have a severe impact on your quality of life.  CyberShrink  addresses some unusual phobias:

Q:  Social phobia 1

I think I am crazy.  At work (where I have been for almost 6 years) I'm very quiet, reserved and suffer from social phobia. Since I have been working here, I have been on anti-depressants and have had CBT. The funny thing is that as soon as I am with people that I don't know, I am chatty, energetic and happy (even with people from work, but not in my department). It's like I lead two lives. Do I suffer from social anxiety or not? And why does this happen? Is this place where I work keeping me stuck in my past behaviour?

A:  I don't hear anything crazy in what you describe. Apparently your social anxiety centres around worrying excessively about what people who you know, think of you, and you feel more relaxed among strangers because you don't care what they think. These are issues which a competent CBT therapist would want to know about and work on. That you are socially capable in some settings proves beyond doubt that you are capable of this. Just need to learn to work in the same way in all settings.

Q:  Social phobia 2

I' ve struggled with social phobia for most of my life and later developed depression because of it. I received help, but only after my second visit to a psychiatric hospital, and quite a few psychologist visits can I truly say I' ve beaten my phobia.

The problem is that I now want to find work. Although I completed a few academic courses I wasn' t able to work and gain experience/references. What should my answer be if a potential employer asks me what I' ve been doing in between my academics?

A:  My first thought is, that though I'm pleased to hear you're feeling so much better from the point of view of social phobia, carry on with and complete a full course of treatment, so that it doesn't return. 

As for work-seeking, it's hard for even the most healthy and brilliant of us, these days. Some will advise you to lie (though I'm not sure what lie would work, and not be discovered, with unfortunate consequences). Some will advise you to tell the truth, and I'd say ask your therapist about this. Personally, I'd rather employ someone who has had a recognised disorder successfully treated, rather than someone who was simply bumming around for some time.

Q:  Needle phobia

I have to go for a blood test, but I'm petrified of needles, I cannot even look at one without passing out. I have never been hurt by a needle or had any trauma that I can remember, but needles just scare me.  Have you heard of this phobia and how do I overcome it? Any advice would be great, I'm prepared to try just about anything.

A:  The good news is that this form of very specific phobia responds beautifully to treatment --- I once treated one of my medical students with needle phobia, and he went on to become a plastic surgeon.
CBT or the earlier form of Behaviour Therapy works well, and fairly rapidly, to unlearn this inappropriate and inconvenient phobia and fear. And you raise an important point about phobias --- they are not rational.  It's not pain you fear but some aspect of the IDEA of needles, and that's what can be fairly easily got rid of. Usually, we never know WHY this situation arose, and fortunately we never need to know that --- you can lose the fear without ever having to understand it in the traditional way.

Q:  Earthworm phobia

I've had a phobia of earth worms since the age of 4 (I'm now 36 ).  To other people it sounds utterly stupid, but it seriously impacts my life.  When it rains I don't want to leave the house as there are always worms on the pathway, and it takes all the strength in me to venture out to my car. When I see worms, I can't describe the terror inside me:  I feel nauseous and my whole body shakes.  

I can remember the incident which sparked this phobia - I was 4 years old, playing in the garden with a hose pipe with my sisters.  I'd never seen a worm before and somehow one got onto my shoe, and I remember screaming as my sisters taunted me, saying it was going to eat me. Stupid, I know! But the phobia has stuck ever since. My parents tried to help me overcome my fear as a child, by getting me into the garden to look at worms, but it never worked. I can't stand the sight of worms even if it's a picture in a magazine or on tv .  Snakes don't bother me nor do snails etc, its only worms.  How do I overcome this phobia? And do medical aids cover treatment for phobias? I really need help to overcome this.

A:  Yes, phobias are rum things, and of course they involve being scared of something that ISN'T particularly frightening to anyone else (nobody complains of a phobia for bombs or man-eating tigers --- you're supposed to be scared of those, and rather silly if you're not scared of them) -- and how very specific they usually are. I'm only surprised that you manage to meet so many earthworms. Apart from the occasional reader who seems to have married one, I don't run into them at all often. 

Actually, your description is excellent, and also reminds us of the senseless cruelty of sisters and others who think it's harmless fun to taunt a frightened child. Such a specific phobia is a well-recognised diagnosis and disorder, which can be quite disabling, and certainly any good medical aid ought to pay for its treatment. Fortunately, they can be really effectively treated.  Personally, I'd recommend seeing a good psychologist, as the best treatment would be Behaviour Therapy, which needn't take long.

Basically, one learns first to deeply relax oneself, then starts to associate the idea of whatever one fears (the worms, eg ), firstly in one's imagination (thinking of a very small worm, very far away) with feeling relaxed, not terrified.

Eventually, if one wanted to (though I expect you'll prefer other hobbies) you could become not only a keen gardener, but even run a worm-farm, if you chose to.  The point being -- you could soon be free to make the choice, rather than frightened to even imagine it.  A psychiatrist would probably think of prescribing a drug, though I think they are far less useful in these very specific phobias than in more generalized anxiety disorders.  So, see a psychologist, and set yourself free from these fears.

Q:  Cockroach horror

I was recently told that my life-long fear of coackroaches could in fact be a phobia. I have always laughed at the number of phobias out there, and am convinced that most of them are nonsense, so I don't really want to believe that I could have one.

When faced with cockroaches I can't breathe, and I scream and cry like a crazy person. If one touches me I have to bath or shower in insanely hot water to remove any traces of it.  Even thinking about those horrible little things makes my heart race and my palms sweaty, and causes my chest to feel tight. I can't look at pictures of them without feeling sick.

I've never been attacked by one or had an infestation or anything.  I am just really terrified of them. Does this sound like a phobia or just extreme disgust?

A:  Nobody (usually) actually likes cockroaches, and they are nasty creatures. Depending on the degree of dislike, one could indeed have a phobia for cockroaches. And the sort of reaction you describe does indeed sound excessive and possibly phobic. Indeed, you provide an excellent textbook description of a phobia.

See a good local shrink who can assess you and provide CBT (Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy) which can rid you of this phobia. It won't mean that you'll come to like the critters, but you will be able to deal with them calmly (and with a can of insecticide) rather than be so unpleasantly affected by such encounters.

Q:  Daughter's fear of choking

My daughter suffers from a choking phobia. She seems to be eating well, but is still loosing weight. Can this be because of her fear of choking?

A:  This is really hard for anyone to tell at a distance. Phobias are common, and fear of choking isn't particularly rare. If it's severely limiting the quantity and quality of food she is consuming, obviously that could cause weight loss ; though there could also be other reasons for weight loss, which need to be checked out.  There can also be physical reasons for choking sensations, which can themselves also cause weight loss.  

She needs to be seen by a proper psychiatrist for a full assessment, and perhaps also, after discussion with the psychiatrist, she should also see a specialist in Internal Medicine or Gastrology, to examine out her swallowing mechanism and any other possible physical causes of these problems.

Q:  School phobia

I have a 15-year-old son who is in Grade 9 and has not been to school for the past two weeks. He gets dressed but at the last minute will not go. When questioned why not he says that he does not know why he cannot go.

A:  15 is rather old for the more usual form of school phobia, and one wonders what else may be going on. It may indeed be bullying (kids can be extraordinarily cruel to each other); or adolescent problems about feeling odd about oneself, perhaps in relation to teachers.

Kids mature sexually at different rates, and they can feel awful if the school compels nude showers or similar practices, and they've been teased by other kids; there are many such possible causes. It's worth spending time, not in the early morning crisis-time, but in the more relaxed evenings, talking at length to the boy about school, how he finds it, what he enjoys most, what he enjoys least, what the different teachers are like, how the other kids behave, etc. Talk to his teachers to see if they're aware of any problems. Does he have any close friends, who you could ask --- and who could come and talk with him?

Q:  Colour phobia

Can one develop a phobia, fear, dislike of colours, such as black and red? They aren't exactly relaxing colours to me. I don't think I associate them in pleasant ways. How would this be treated? I think I've developed this and don't even want to wear black or red; and if it's around me, I spot it straight away or even look out for it. I hope it isn't a sign of going mad or becoming mad with the fears. I've been under a lot of stress. The colours are all around too, so I dearly hope can get better.

A:  What you are describing surely happens, though I don't think it's really a phobia --- it's more of a dislike. I dislike guavas, and avoid them, but I have no phobia, and don't actively fear them. Black and red aren't generally the most popular colours, nor generally found to be relaxing, even to those who quite like them.

You certainly are NOT going mad, though you may be growing anxious under the influence of whatever is stressing you, and perhaps focusing your anxiety on these actually irrelevant colours, rather than on whatever is really bothering you. See a good CBTG style counsellor/therapist, who could rapidly help you to understand this, learn how to cope better with your stresses, and lose this annoying association to these colours.

And it's not only humans who suffer from phobias - Cybervet attended to this question:

Q:  Dog's cat phobia

We have a seven-month old spayed German Shepherd bitch which is very temperamental. For the past few weeks she has suddenly taken exception to the neighbours' cats walking on our boundary walls or traversing the garden. She barks herself into an absolute frenzy and keeps on long after the cat is out of sight, her back hair standing on end.

This usually starts at sunset. We have to lock her up in the garage at night which is a pity, as she has a room in the back-yard where we leave the door open at night. My husband thinks that getting our own cat might cure her, although I would prefer to get her a castrated male friend from the SPCA, because I suspect that she is frightened of the cats.

A:  Your dog is a natural hunter (and cats are natural prey), as are all domestic dogs, to a certain extent. They all originate from wild dog/wolf type dogs, which had to hunt to survive, and which have been bred by humans for over 8000 years.

Different breeds have been bred to do different jobs and so the instincts (like hunting and territorial behaviour) have been selected or not over the years.

This means that German Shepherds have a strong protective instinct (bred as police and obedience dogs mainly), but will rarely actually attack and kill, like for instance a Staffordshire Bull Terrier would. I think, as you say, your dog is scared of the cats and sees them as an invading her territory. The cats are also having fun teasing her, so you could try to deter them by spraying the cats with a water pistol or spraying the fence with a citronella solution or putting up spikes.

Some puppy classes use a cat in the class to desensitise the pups, but she will be too old for this now. Getting your own cat may help, particularly if it is a feisty kitten that has either lived with other dogs or is particularly fearless.

You will have to introduce it to her in a cage at first, gradually getting her used to this new "pack member". Give her treats and praise, even if she growls or barks, as she needs to associate the cat with positive things.

Dogs see humans and other animals as pack members if they all live together. Another dog may make things worse, unless he is older and well-socialised with cats and even then there's no guarantee. Two or more dogs will team up and could corner and injure or kill a cat more easily than one dog. Consider that your dog may be bored and cat-chasing her only pastime - make sure she is getting enough stimulation in the way of training, daily walks and toys to chew. 

More information:

Fear or phobia?

Afraid of your mother-in-law?  It may be a phobia.


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