Strange fears so strong they ruin lives

16:00, Jan 13 2012
Laura Anderton
IRRATIONAL FEAR: Laura Anderton is one of hundreds of thousands of people in New Zealand with a phobia in her case, a fear of cheese.

Laura Anderton can't stand the smell, texture and appearance of cheese. She even hates the word. "Since I have had a voice, and have been able to say no to food, I haven't eaten it," the 28-year-old says.

Miss Anderton believes she is one of hundreds of thousands of people in New Zealand with a phobia.

Whether it's a fear of social situations, heights, clowns or small spaces, research suggests up to one in three New Zealanders could have some sort of phobic disorder, The Phobic Trust's chief executive Marcia Read says.

Ms Read started the trust in 1980 after years fearing enclosed and busy spaces and not knowing why.

She later discovered she had agoraphobia, the most common form of which is a fear of public places.

A lot of artists, musicians and intelligent people have phobias, she says. It can run in the family.

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The trust is currently treating three generations of the same family and has helped people overcome their fears of hair, certain colours and body shape – body dysmorphic disorder – whose sufferers see a morphed reflection of themselves when they look in the mirror.

Severe phobias affect people on a day-to-day basis, Ms Read says.

"It could be the colour purple, a plant or any type of insect," she says.

"We've known people who have had to put tape on their doors so insects can't get in."

Phobias are the leading cause of alcohol and drug abuse, absenteeism from school and work, and suicide, Ms Read says. "[They] can be a very serious disability in people's lives."

People can overcome their fears with help from psychiatrists, psychologists and group therapy, but they often continue living with a "minute problem".

"If they lose that part of them they're not going to be themselves. It's part of their nature to be like this."

Miss Anderton, who is living in Wellington while on a working holiday from Britain, says she hasn't sought help because she doesn't want to eat cheese, or be anywhere near it.

She avoids it in the supermarket, won't go anywhere near pizza-only restaurants and tells people she's intolerant "because it seems silly to say I have a phobia".

"Even if I hear the word cheese, I'm like, `Where? Where is it?"' she says.

"I don't eat any pizza, lasagne, cheesecake. I'm really careful about checking things. It sends shivers down my spine."

Aucklander Guy Hollister hates heights. To him, the thought of being up Auckland's Sky Tower is "hell". Driving over the harbour bridge fast is "okay", but if driving slowly "it feels like it's going to fall from under me".

Mr Hollister, 42, believes his fear of heights, acrophobia, stems from a repetitive childhood dream in which after cycling up a hill he would speed out towards the sea, rather than down the road, and float high above the water. "It would wake me up," he says.

Mr Hollister avoids multi-storey buildings and if he has to go up them he has to have his back against the elevator wall, or take his time on stairs, gripping the rail with two hands.

When he arrived in London a few years ago and got a job in a tall building, his reaction was excitement, then dread. "I realised repetitive exposure to the same risk reduces the fear. I tried to kill it and after six months it wasn't really an issue," he says. But he went away for a while, and when he returned the fear returned.

He says the fear turns his stomach "inside out'.

A phobia of heights is one of the main contributors to a fear of flying, says psychologist Grant Amos, who runs the programme Flying Without Fear.

People do not necessarily have a phobia of flying, but of something else, which leads to the fear, he says.

"People think it's a fear of flying, but it's not."

Some people scared of flying have acrophobia, agoraphobia, xenophobia – fear of foreigners and strangers – and claustrophobia, a fear of confined spaces.

Less common phobias he has come across while running the programme are fears of cigarette smoke, of service trolleys ("bar cart phobia") and ornithophobia, a fear of birds.

"One woman with ornithophobia would have the same reaction if people said to her, `Why don't we fly to Brisbane for a holiday', or `Let's get Kentucky Fried Chicken'," Mr Amos says.

The programme teaches people how the aircraft works and breathing and behavioural exercises to help them overcome their fear.

"They're not comfortable with it but if you fly and it's not as uncomfortable [as the last time], then you might feel more comfortable the next time," Mr Amos says.

Ms Read says The Phobic Trust aims to change attitudes towards those with phobias, so they're not treated as "second-rate people".

More and more people are seeking help, which suggests there is growing awareness, but the stigma still needs to be lifted.

"When you've walked the walk, like I have, you can't say it doesn't matter for other people," she says.

"Because it does matter – enormously."

Wellington