The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

May 17, 2013

Some phobias are bizarre, but they're no less terrifying

Point Blank column

By John Blankenship

— You are completely alone in a large open space and are struck by a terrifying, unreasoning fear.

You sweat, your heart races, you cannot breathe. You fear you may die of a heart attack, although you do not suffer from heart disease.

Suppose you decide you will never get yourself in this helpless situation again. You go home and refuse to leave its secure confines.

Your family has to support you. You have agoraphobia — a disabling terror of open spaces.

Relax. While your behavior might be considered quirky, you are not crazy.

We all are afraid of something: spiders, snakes, the dark, making a bad grade, speaking in public or even something as zany as meteorites or UFOs.

However, some people go a step further, their fears turning into a phobia (an intense, abnormal fear). Why some people become phobic and others don’t is a mystery that continues to puzzle researchers and psychologists. Theories range from genetic disorders to learned behavior. There is no simple answer, and there may never be one.

And yet, more than 7 million Americans suffer from phobias of one kind or another. Some are bizarre, but they are no less terrifying to the person having the experience.

And while phobias are totally irrational, they have the power to dictate daily behavior.

A sufferer can experience a panic attack, with symptoms including rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath and an overwhelming urge to escape the situation. The disorder is more common among women and often begins in the early 20s, although doctors aren’t sure why.

A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder. It is a strong, irrational fear of something that poses little or no real danger. There are many specific phobias. Acrophobia is a fear of heights. Agoraphobia is a fear of public places, and claustrophobia is a fear of closed-in places. If you become anxious and extremely self-conscious in everyday social situations, you could have a social phobia.

According to a study conducted by Boeing Aircraft Corp. in the 1980s, some 25 million Americans were afraid of flying on airplanes. The following is a list of celebrities who suffer from aviophobia, some of whom have refused engagements thousands of miles away because of their fear of flying: Aretha Franklin, Billy Bob Thornton, Muhammad Ali, Cher, John Madden and Bob Newhart. Actor and former President Ronald Reagan reportedly suffered from the same phobia.

Other celebrities with known phobias include the late actress Natalie Wood, who ironically suffered from hydrophobia, an intense fear of large bodies of water.

Andre Agassi, tennis star, suffers from arachnophobia, a fear of spiders.

Actress Kim Basinger is afraid of wide open spaces. Actress Nicole Kidman reportedly is afraid of butterflies.

Ann Rice, author of scary vampire and witch stories, suffers from an intense fear of the dark.

The late Alfred Hitchcock, a genius of filmdom, was said to have been afraid of eggs.

Lyle Lovett, Julia Roberts’ ex-husband and country singer, reportedly is afraid of cows. That is ironic when one of his latest videos features several bovine creatures in the background.

Nineteen million adults suffer from clinical anxiety like panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The late pop singer Michael Jackson is said to have been afraid of both germs and flying.

Some of the more common phobias include the following:

- Agoraphobia, fear of open spaces.

- Acrophobia, fear of heights.

- Ailurophobia, fear of cats.

- Claustrophobia, fear of small space or being closed in.

- Hoplophobia, fear of firearms.

- Hydrophobia, fear of water.

- Murophobia, fear of mice.

- Mysophobia, fear of dirt or germs.

- Nyctophobia, fear of darkness.

- Ophidiophobia, fear of snakes.

- Pyrophobia, fear of fire.

- Xenophobia, fear of strangers or foreigners.

- Zoophobia, fear of animals.

Phobias usually start in children or teens and continue into adulthood. The causes of specific phobias are not known but they sometimes run in families. Treatment helps most people with phobias. Options include medicines, therapy or both.


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— Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail: