Somewhere not far from you there is a person so fearful of being trapped in a confined space that he has to position himself near a door throughout the day. There is someone else whose journey into work across London is twice as long as it needs to be because she insists on travelling by bus - sitting
in an aisle seat as close to the exit as possible - instead of the much faster but terrifyingly claustrophobic Tube.
Another person will routinely cross the road to avoid something that makes them feel panicky: a dog perhaps, or a cluster of pigeons on the pavement, or a large crowd of people.
And at school, there are a few pupils you see only intermittently because they're afraid of coming to school. Their fear
may be of bullies, of humiliation at not knowing the right answer, of being excluded from a social group. However seemingly trivial the fear may seem to others, it is larger than life to the children who experience it.
We're all afraid of something. If you were to ask people what they feared, they might say
spiders or snakes or rats. But there is a difference between rational fears, which you could stretch to include all the above if you really tried hard enough, and irrational fears that have no basis in reality. Things like the fear of birds, dogs, flowers,
fog, crossing the road, heights, aeroplanes, darkness, open spaces, unfamiliar surroundings, foreign countries, germs, even leaves. Or the fear of actions like speaking in public, walking on cracks in the pavement, taking exams, having injections, being sick.
Phobias come in a frightening range of guises. There are between 300 and 400 known phobias, and the numbers of
sufferers seem to be growing in line with the increased stress
levels that people face in the industrialised West. The Royal Society of Psychiatrists estimates that there are around 16 million people in the UK who have some form of anxiety disorder, ranging from low-level stress to severe social phobias.
When it comes to phobias, you name it and there'll be someone who's afraid of it. When I was little, I used to scream blue murder whenever I saw a bearded man (a slight social handicap when you're surrounded by Orthodox Jews, among them your own grandfather). Apparently, I
wasn't alone. There's actually
a word for the fear of
beards, as there are for most phobias: pogonphobia. My grandmother had another
word for it: meshuga, which
is Yiddish for crazy.
Give it a few minutes' thought and you'll discover that you're surrounded by people who live with fears, successfully or otherwise. I have an ostensibly sane relative who is so afraid of
contracting illnesses from other people that he carries around baby wipes to clean his
hands after he's touched door handles and bannisters in public buildings. And I have
friends who would rather sail on treacherous seas for days on end than sit in a plane for a couple of hours.
You can tell the difference between dislike and full-blown phobia because the latter is accompanied by physical symptoms such as breathing
difficulties, racing heart, palpitations, sweating and nausea. It's all very nasty. So when
presented with the choice of
facing something you're phobic about or avoiding it, you jump at the opportunity to steer clear. And that's when you really know you've got problems.
Psychologist Stephen Palmer, director of the Centre for Stress Management in London, says that at least half of all the patients he treats admit to being phobic about speaking in front of a group of people. When you're ambitious, whether it's in a school or a multinational corporation, you won't get very far if you always find excuses to avoid addressing meetings or giving presentations. At worst, it can seriously hamper your job prospects or even compromise your existing position.
Dr Palmer uses cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
with his phobic patients. He describes it as an approach
that "deals with issues in the here and now. When I work with people, let's say it's someone who gets panic attacks on trains, we look at the reasons behind the response. I'll ask 'What
don't you like about being closed in? What do you think will
happen to you?' "
While it's a million miles away from using psychoanalysis to find the cause of a problem, the success of CBT in dealing with phobias and anxieties is well documented in research.
Stephen Palmer believes that, in spite of the hundreds of therapies available that claim to help, "with the average phobia, you can sort the thing out yourself. Obviously, if you're feeling suicidal you would need to see somebody, but there are some extremely good self-help books that can help people overcome phobias on their own."
The fact that you don't have to lie on a shrink's couch for at least a decade to overcome your fears is good news. So, too, is
the fact that for some people,
anxiety attacks and fearfulnes s are brought on by specific
events and, when dealt with effectively, can be overcome relatively quickly. Recent bereavement is a classic example of a life experience that can trigger
temporary bouts of claustrophobia, agoraphobia (fear of being in unfamiliar surroundings)
or hypochondria (the certainty that you have something seriously wrong with you).
Whatever the reason, whatever the fear, it helps to know that you're not alone and that there is a way out of what can, for some people, seem like a prison. When Winston Churchill said, "There is nothing to fear but fear itself", he probably wasn't talking about arachnophobia (fear of spiders), but he had a useful point to make in this context. With all the modern approaches available (see box above) that help you to look at the problem, you can consider your fear in perspective and, with time and understanding, conquer it.
Centre for Stress Management, 156 Westcombe Hill, London SE3 7DH, tel: 0181 293 4114. The centre has a resource list for self-help books, etc. For a copy, send a self-addressed stamped envelope.
The National Phobics Society (Assistant director Nicky Lidbetter, see box) can be contacted on 0161 881 1937. The society supports people suffering from all forms of anxiety disorders, conducts research, offers
counselling, recommends a range of conventional and alternative therapies, runs anxiety management groups, provides a self-help information pack, newsletters, contact lists and has
its own clinical hypnotherapy service in Greater Manchester and in the