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Spiders and Darkness and Thunder Oh My!

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Image by ambermb from Pixabay 

Published in the Humbodlt Independent on March 30, 2021

Recently there was a rather long thread going around social media about all the things that folks would do differently in the new normal of a now finally imaginable post-pandemic world.

The posters mostly all rolled out the varied manifestations of their fears of germs, stating they would no longer use salad bars or shake hands, that they would not ride on crowded public transportation or dip into a shared bowl of nuts at the bar. Don’t even bring up the bowling alley. On and on the thread went for hundreds of posts, and it became apparent that the pandemic has rendered many of us nearly phobic about contagious disease.

This is despite the fact that before the pandemic, it was generally accepted that a healthy amount of exposure to bacteria and viruses helped to strengthen our immune response.

Could we actually be making ourselves phobic about exposure and contagion? And what would it take to shed that phobia so that, at least until the next pangolin-bat tryst, we feel OK about going back to the salad bar for another round of olives and garbanzo beans for the restless toddler in the restaurant high-chair?

Phobias come in all shapes and sizes

The word phobia comes from the Greek phobos meaning horror or fear.

From your run-of-the-mill arachnophobia (fear of spiders) to the more esoteric pogonophobia (fear of beards).

They can arise suddenly, as the case seems to be with all the new germ phobias presently emerging, or can have unknown origins. The word phobia comes from the Greek phobos meaning horror or fear.

The fear is considered to be irrational, but to the sufferer, it is anything but. While a mountain goat may be able to stand on a narrow ledge along a steep mountain slope casually gnawing vegetation, if you are afraid of heights, no matter how much you know that you are capable of balancing on that ledge, you will feel your heart race, your skin break out in a cold sweat, and utter terror enter your mind. Don’t look down!

Many people feel so intensely afraid of the object of their phobia that they actually take more serious actual risks to avoid a confrontation. A person with a phobia for dogs, rather than walk by a well-fenced yard with a snapping, snarling cur lunging harmlessly at the end of its chain, they might run wildly across a traffic-thronged street, to their mind, out of harm’s way.

Phobias and how they’re treated

There are three basic types of phobia, each treated, if at all, a bit differently. “Specific” phobias such as those for thunder, dogs, flying in a plane, etc. can be treated by slow gradual guided exposure or desensitization, ultimately rendering the sufferer no longer irrationally afraid of the thing or circumstance. Many people manage this type of phobia on their own, as avoiding the object or situation may not hamper their daily life. About 13 percent of Americans have this type of phobia.

When treated, gradual desensitization therapy can often bring relief for those who must fly, or stand on steep ledges, or pet the in-laws’ dog.

“Social” phobias are a type of anxiety disorder involving fear of situations in which a person is certain they will be humiliated or judged around others. This can affect work, school, and personal relationships. It might occur in people with underdeveloped social skills and research is showing that certain parts of the brain might be over or under-stimulated in social situations, leading to irrational fear.

Social phobias are treated primarily with talk therapy. CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), often in group settings, is effective at teaching new ways of reacting, thinking, and behaving in social situations. Sometimes anti-anxiety medication can also be helpful.

Recent research has pointed to the idea that agoraphobia has worsened for many sufferers during the pandemic.

Agoraphobia is the third type of phobia and is a wide umbrella over an array of situational fears. Sometimes thought of as a fear of leaving home, it also involves fear of any situation in which the sufferer feels a lack of control or a sense of helplessness. Crowded areas, travel hubs, and standing in long lines can all potentially cause panic attacks. Once a panic attack has been experienced in a given situation, a person’s fear of that situation can increase exponentially.

Recent research has pointed to the idea that agoraphobia has worsened for many sufferers during the pandemic. Once locked down, you would think agoraphobics would be content in their controlled environment, but in fact, their fears have been heightened by the ominous sense of the many unknowns of virus transmission, degree of illness, etc.

Some people have developed agoraphobia while in quarantine, especially younger people or those who already have other anxiety issues or disorders. Agoraphobia can be temporary or life-long and is treated with CBT or medication to mitigate its effects, many of which can lead to other more serious mental health conditions, minor forms of which many of us have noticed as a result of isolation through the covid era.

How are you feeling about shaking someone’s hand or getting a hug from a friend you haven’t seen in person for over a year? Maybe it’s the salad bar heebie jeebies that get you? What about being in a crowded elevator? How will we come back around to accepting that a certain amount of exposure is good for us?

If you are feeling unduly anxious about life after opening up, it might be a good idea to discuss it with your medical provider. Describe the symptoms you experience when imagining yourself returning to normal, or finding a new normal. If those symptoms include a racing heart rate, chills, shakiness, or other physical manifestations of fear, you might ask for a referral to a counselor to help you develop a strategy for coping.

And please don’t run across any busy streets. Or even Redwood Drive.

Ann Constantino, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.