Phobia: New Series Goes Inside the World of Fear

National Geographic News
September 30, 2002
Ophidiophobia. Coulrophobia. Amaxophobia. They sound like terrible
diseases, and in a way they are.

Imagine if every thunderstorm sent you into a desperate state of panic.

What if you couldn't force yourself into your car to drive across town or across a bridge? If the very sight of a spider, a snake, or even a clown at a child's birthday party overwhelmed you with fear?

For the millions of people who suffer from phobias, the ordinary can become unbearable.

Phobias may arise from childhood psychological trauma, abnormalities in the structure of the brain, and even human evolution.

The Function of Fear

"Fear is actually there to protect us. It's unpleasant when we experience it, but the whole fear response is designed to protect us from danger," said Martin Antony, a psychologist at St. Joseph's Hospital in Hamilton, Canada.

"When we're afraid," he added, "our heart races to get blood to the parts [of the body] that need it. We breathe more heavily to get oxygen to the big muscles, we sweat to cool off the body so we can perform more effectively."

Phobics, however, feel intense fear even when there is no real danger. The fear can be so bad that it disrupts their lives.

Phobia, a new series from the National Geographic Channel, explores the origins and treatment of extreme fears. The series looks at the problem from the phobic's point of view, revealing how a person's life can be dramatically changed—and even controlled—by his or her fear.

Fighting Phobias

One of those profiled in the series is Wendy Black, who has had a lifelong fear of heights. Her fear was strong enough to keep her from climbing the slide at the playground with her children when they were small.

When viewers first meet Wendy, fear shapes her daily routine, paralyzing her at the top of a tall escalator or long flight of stairs. "It's the fear of falling, even though I know it's ridiculous to feel that way. I freeze—I can't move my feet," she says.

"It affects your self-esteem," she says, "to be afraid when everybody else is going [somewhere]. I feel bad about myself if I'm staying behind."

One of Wendy's sons recalls a hiking trip when the family came to a small bridge without handrails. "My mother insisted that we crawl across it because she was afraid we were going to fall off," says Mori Black.

With Antony's help, Wendy Black is fighting her phobia.

Using an approach known as cognitive therapy, Antony guides Wendy through the process of climbing a small ladder, a situation that in the past would have triggered her fear.

Eventually, Wendy rides to the top of Toronto's tall CN Tower. She even rides ten stories high in an open-air cab along the side of a skyscraper.

Phobias versus Fears

Phobia looks at the difference between normal fears and phobias. Experts discuss why some people relish a good scare while others are overwhelmed with panic.

The episodes feature "antiphobes," people who relish situations that would be terrifying for phobics. Many of these people are workers who regularly face danger on the job, such as firefighters, high-rise construction workers, scientists who study snakes and spiders, and a photographer who specializes in recording lightning.

Also included are harrowing tales from people who have survived situations that would terrify anyone, phobic or not: victims of collapsed buildings, lightning strikes, plane crashes, and venomous snake and spider bites.

The first episode in the series highlights ophidiophobia, or the fear of snakes.

Phobia premieres on Monday, September 30, at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel. Check your local TV listings for details.

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