Health and wellness

Scared of turtles? Petrified of pigeons? How phobias happen, and what you can do if you have an irrational fear

  • A phobia is an irrational fear of something. It can be common, such as flying or dark spaces, or more obscure such as a fear of turtles
  • Various behavioural and cognitive therapies can help reduce the anxiety
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 November, 2018, 7:17pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 November, 2018, 7:17pm

Most people have not have heard of chelonaphobia, or fear of turtles.

Christina Ko has. She’s scared of turtles and tortoises, and while it sounds irrational to most people, that’s exactly what a phobia is – an extreme or irrational fear that’s vastly out of proportion to the actual danger or risk that the perceived threat poses.

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“I was about five years old when my parents came home with two pet turtles,” says the Hong Kong-born freelance writer over a coffee. “I freaked out. I couldn’t look at them,” she says.

“Obviously my parents didn’t throw away the turtles – they put them in my brother’s room. But these things live long lives … I didn’t go into that bedroom for 10 years.”

Hong Kong-based hypnotherapist Sonia Samtani, founder of Central wellness centre All About You, has dealt with a range of phobias – some common, some not.

“I’ve treated people for fear of heights, public speaking, cockroaches, snakes, needles, medical procedures, flying and dark spaces, and less common phobias such as sexual intimacy, cats, escalators and pigeons.”

Hypnotherapy has shown to be an effective treatment for fears and phobias. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a type of counselling that helps people change the way they think and behave, is also a popular treatment. Part of CBT involves exposure therapy, also known as desensitisation, and involves gradually increasing the level of exposure to a fear, allowing a person to gain control over their phobia.

Gradually desensitise yourself from the stimulus by taking baby steps, says Samtani.

“For example, if your phobia is of cockroaches and the thought of it already puts your body in a frenzy, practice holding that thought for two to three seconds first, then a little longer, then you could step forward to looking at a picture of a cockroach, then a video of one, and finally able to see one live,” she says.

“These baby steps begin to build a new neuro-pathway between the brain and the mind where you break the old association, and begin to feel safe with the stimulus.”

Last month, researchers in Britain found a way to reduce the severity of phobias by timing a person’s exposure to them in line with their heartbeat.

In a paper published in Psychosomatic Medicine, a research team from the University of Sussex found that exposing a person to the subject of their phobia to match their heart beats could reduce a phobia’s severity. The research used a concept called computerised therapy that involves a graded exposure to fear-evoking stimuli.

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Samtani says phobias produce different emotional reactions based on how the person responds to the phobia. “In extreme cases it can so debilitating that people stop going out or participating in activities related to the phobia,” she says.

For example, she says, people will stop being in nature for fear of insects, stop getting on a plane for fear of flying, stop walking on the street for fear of cockroaches, stop entering lifts for fear of closed spaces, stop going to doctors for fear of needles.

Ko can relate to that behaviour – she avoids “turtle zones.” Ironically she has become a stellar turtle spotter and knows places in the city where turtles lurk.

“I can tell you exactly where turtles are sold in Causeway Bay,” she says, referring to the district on Hong Kong Island where she lives.

“I could create a turtle map of Hong Kong.”

Ko gets anxious when she sees a turtle. She shakes and sweats, standard symptoms among phobia sufferers. Hot flushes or chills, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, a choking sensation, rapid heartbeat and a pain or tightness in the chest are other symptoms, according to Hong Kong-based Mind HK, a mental health support organisation.

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Samtani says phobias can also eat away at a person’s self-confidence and self-esteem, the impact more severe if that person doesn’t know why they are scared of something.

“This can have repercussions in both their personal and professional life.”

Ko has no idea how her turtle phobia developed.

“I’m sure a hypnotist could draw that out of me, but I haven’t found it. I think I will just live with it and deal with it as this stage,” says the 38-year-old.

Samtani says dealing with phobias depends on the severity of the symptoms and how committed people are to overcoming them.

“There are techniques out there that can eliminate even the most extreme phobias, so people don’t have to suffer alone or think of this as lifelong,” says Samtani.

Fear factors

Mind HK says there’s not one particular cause of phobias, but several factors that might play a role:

• Particular incidents or traumas. For example, someone who experiences a lot of turbulence on a plane at a young age might later develop a phobia about flying.

• Learned responses, picked up in early life. You might develop the same specific phobia as a parent or older sibling. Factors in the family environment, such as parents who are very worried or anxious, can have an effect on the way you cope with anxiety in later life.

• Genetics – some people appear to be born with a tendency to be more anxious than others.

• Responses to panic or fear. If you have a strong reaction, or panic attack, in response to a particular situation or object, and you find this embarrassing, or people around you react strongly, this can cause you to develop a more intense anxiety about being in that situation again.

• Long-term stress can cause feelings of anxiety and depression, and reduce your ability to cope in particular situations. This can make you feel more fearful or anxious about being in those situations again, and over a long period, could lead to you developing a phobia.