This article is part of VocaLady Magazine’s ongoing series on mental health for Mental Health Awareness Month which takes place in May.
I am standing in the middle of my room, slowly rotating round and round, eyes wide. My heart is beating rapidly, my palms sweaty as they desperately rub at my skin. Are there more? My head rings with the question over and over. Every slight twitch of my skin sends me flying, beating it away, my mouth set in a wide O, prepared to scream for help. What’s wrong with me?
Don’t laugh; I’ve just seen a spider. The problem? I have a phobia of spiders.
In the United States alone, 8.7% of people suffer from a phobia. A phobia is defined as an irrational fear of something. A fear might make you want to run and hide, but a phobia takes it several steps further. Phobias cause intense responses, such as hyperventilating, vigilance, the intense rubbing of the skin, rapid heartbeat and, most of all, a complete inability to control this reaction.
Even after the spider has been removed from my room, I stand there, glancing around anxiously. When I finally coax myself into bed, despite the deep exhaustion pressing on my eyelids, I keep my eyes wide open, prepared to leap from my bed if the shadows look funny on my ceiling. I know I have an exam in the morning. I know there are no more, but there’s this uncontrollable voice in the back of my head, accompanied by my rapidly beating heart and sweat beads on my forehead, saying: there could be more. In the face of my phobia, I am powerless.
It sounds funny, doesn’t it? A girl so terrified of spiders that she will scream until her voice is hoarse, cry until there are no tears left, and stay up late searching her room to make sure it’s clear. Well, it’s not funny to me — nor to the 19 million people in the United States who suffer from various phobias.
It’s important to be aware, when dealing with phobias, that these things go past simple fears. They’re irrational fears and they’re uncontrollable unless treated (which can include things such as exposure therapy or treating an underlying mental illness that may be accompanying the phobia). Here are some other things you should know about phobias:
- They don’t just cause intense fear. They cause intense avoidance. My phobia has restricted my movement. I’m terrified of entering dark spaces, particularly outdoors, and might just avoid going outside in the dark altogether. I won’t touch underneath furniture. Cobwebs or any sort of floating piece of dust in the air make my skin crawl…and my skin crawling makes me rub my arms and legs frantically, making sure there’s nothing on me.
- There may have been a time where it was just a fear.For me, this phobia has been a rumbling and growing one for years, a feeling I’m sure is shared by many people who suffer from phobias. There was likely a time where I couldn’t quite classify my distaste for spiders as a phobia; I hated them, but they didn’t send me into hysterics. However, years of unsatisfactory spider encounters have created a mounting fear: a phobia.
- The reaction after being confronted with one’s phobia is uncontrollable. I’d like very much to be able to calmly handle the situation myself or, at least, calmly ask for help. Yet, that seems nearly impossible. I can’t control the feeling of something crawling on my skin that leads me to rub and scratch at it until I’m somewhat satisfied. I can’t control my racing thoughts that keep me from properly articulating how I feel. I can’t stop the insistent tears, the fearful screams when confronted with my phobia, or the hyper vigilant state I fall into. I know it may seem so menial to on-lookers, but I have retreated deeply into a place of fear, a place that’s difficult to claw out of.
- The reaction of others can be just as bad.
As I’ve learned throughout the years, if the reaction to the thing itself isn’t bad enough, phobia sufferers like myself have to deal with the reactions of others. I’ve had friends and family laugh at me, taunt me and even threaten to bring a spider to me. I’ve had people touch me in a way before as it to imitate a spider on my skin. I’ve had eyes rolled at me. I’ve had people stop listening to me, even when I’m crying for help. I’ve been yelled at before for having such an adverse reaction to a spider, as if this reaction is something I can control.
And yet, an important distinction to be made here is that I’m not ashamed of the phobia itself; I’m only ashamed when others treat me like a joke. I’m ashamed of not being taken seriously.Phobia sufferers just wish those who taunt and tease us would understand this: our phobia is not a joke for you to laugh at. It’s not a nuisance for you, and if you find it annoying, please imagine how I feel.
It’s time to start validating the feelings of those who have phobias. If you don’t suffer from a phobia, it can be hard to understand another’s reaction, but please understand that it’s hard for us to understand our reaction as well. Understand that people that suffer from a phobia feel out of control, that their physical reaction can be violent and painful, and that they’re deeply frightened. Ask what they need and what you can do to alleviate the fear. For me, it’s killing the spider and reassuring me that it’s gone, and that the next space I’ll enter is clear as well. For others, it can be a hug or just reassurance that you’re there for them.
Remember that phobias can be classified as a condition; it’s not just a fear. So, the next time you see someone screaming, crying, or hyperventilating in the face of a spider, a needle, a plane ride, or whatever their phobia is, consider ceasing your laughter and simply asking, what can I do? A little less laughter can go a long way. I know for me, it would help a lot, knowing I don’t have to face it alone.