Phobias - by Dr David Delvin


Do YOU have a particular fear of something?

Probably you do, because all of us dislike certain nasty things which we encounter in life – for instance aggressive yobbos in the street, or dark alleyways at night, or horrible images of killings on the TV news.

However, a lot of people experience fears which are far WORSE than that. When they encounter certain objects or situations, they become dreadfully upset or frightened. Quite irrationally, they experience extreme terror or panic.

This awful fear is often accompanied by disabling physical symptoms, for example :

Thumping in the chest;   Legs turning to jelly;   Breathlessness;   Sweating;  Going as white as a sheet.


Now, people who get these symptoms are suffering from PHOBIAS. And their phobic attacks are sparked off by quite simple things – things that the rest of us wouldn’t be bothered by. For instance, many men and women are reduced to a state of quivering dread if they encounter:

Spiders;  Cats;  Needles or other sharp objects;  The number 13!

Does all that seem daft to you?  Well, beware – because ANYONE can be hit by a phobia.

Sometimes these phobias arrive out of  the blue, in middle age or even later, in  people  who’ve had no ‘nervous troubles’ all their lives.


For instance, you remember dear Laurence Olivier. When he was at the very top of his profession, with a glittering career stretching 40 years behind him, he was suddenly struck by what experts call ‘topophobia.’

What’s that? Well, it’s stage fright.  Poor Larry was appalled to find that with no warning at all, he had become PHOBIC about appearing on stage.  It absolutely terrified him!

Amazingly, no one who was watching him realized the agony he was going through.

He struggled on for what he called ‘five and a half years of agonizing dread,’  hiding his phobia away from the public. It was one of the worst times of his whole life. Eventually, he got better – and he had the courage to tell everyone about it in his autobiography Confessions of an Actor (which is a very good read, by the way!).

Of course, plenty of ordinary folk get phobias too. Take the case of Laura. She was 55 when the illness called ‘agoraphobia’ struck her, like a bolt of lightning. It happened this way …

One morning, Laura went out of her garden gate and started walking towards the shops. Half-way there, she suddenly felt utterly TERRIFIED. It seemed to her that she was out in the open, with nothing to protect her from the heavens. She was convinced that something really awful might happen to her if she didn’t seek shelter immediately. Her heart was racing, she was gasping for breath, and she had a feeling of a choking lump in her throat. She thought she was about to die.

Laura asked a passer-by for help, but he obviously thought she was crazy, and hurried away. Then a friend came along in a car, and Laura shouted to her: ‘For God’s sake, get me home, please!’

Once she was back in the shelter of her house, she felt much better – and she thought that whatever had happened to her, it was now over. However, next day when she was in the supermarket, her terrifying feelings returned. And the day after that, when she went out for a walk on the golf course, she experienced the same overwhelming fear.

So Laura spent the next few months as a ‘prisoner’ in her own home. She was just too frightened to go out. Unfortunately, when she told her husband about what had been going on, he just said: ‘Well, you’d better pull yourself together, my dear!’

Laura tried to get help from her doctor, but ran straight into the problem which has been faced by so many agoraphobics: he was perfectly willing to see her at his surgery, but she was too frightened to leave the house to go down there! And he wouldn’t make a house call for something so ‘trivial’….

Time went by, and Laura got no better. Her husband left her. Her children reckoned she’d ‘gone loopy.’ Many of her friends deserted her, because she couldn’t go out and meet them.

Fortunately, an old school pal was eventually able to help her. She’d had an ‘eating phobia’ at one time in her life, and had been helped by some books and records by an Australian doctor called Claire Weekes – who had treated a lot of phobic patients in the 1970s. Laura read Dr Weekes’ books, and they helped her to see that phobias COULD be overcome, if you took things gradually.


With the assistance of her friend, she embarked on a graduated programme of going out of the house, like this:

  • On the first day, just going to the front gate;
  • On the second day, going to the lamppost 25 yards away;
  • On the third day, walking to the end of the road;
  • On the fourth day, getting as far as the library … and so on.

This approach (which is called ‘desensitisation’ or ‘gradual desensitisation’ by psychologists) slowly produced a cure. By the end of six months, Laura had trained herself to go anywhere she wanted to – without fear.                         

Not all phobias are as dramatic as agoraphobia. For instance, a lot of people suffer from the little-known gephyrophobia – or ‘bridge phobia.’ When they drive up to a road bridge, they’re absolutely terrified of going across it. Usually, they’ll turn back and try to get round some other way.

Although gephyrophobia isn’t well known, people who administer large bridges are well aware of it. That’s why some of our biggest suspension bridges – like the Queen Elizabeth River Thames crossing at Dartford – have a discreet office just to the left of the approach road. It contains a couple of officials who are always ready to chauffeur someone across the bridge, if she or he comes in and says: ‘I’ve got a phobia, and I just can’t drive across myself!’                                           

Now what other phobias are there? Here’s a list of some of the more common ones:


ACCIDENTS                                       Dystichiphobia

ANIMALS                                             Zoophobia

BIRDS                                                  Ornithophobia

CANCER                                             Carcinophobia

CATS                                                   Alurophobia

CHICKENS                                         Alektorophobia

COITUS/SEX                                      Coitophobia

COMPUTERS                                    Cyberphobia

CONFINED SPACES                       Claustrophobia

DEATH                                                Thanatophobia

DENTISTS                                          Dentophobia

DINING OUT                                       Deipnophobia

DIRT                                                    Misophobia

DISEASE                                           Panthophobia

EATING                                               Phagophobia

FEMALE GENITALS                        Kolpophobia

FLYING                                               Aviophobia

FOREIGNERS                                   Xenophobia

KISSING                                             Philematophobia

LIGHTING &THUNDER                     Brontophobia

MARRIAGE                                        Gamophobia

MIRRORS                                          Catoptrophobia

NOISE                                                Acousticophobia

NUDITY                                              Gymnophobia

NUMBER 13                                     Triskadecaphobia

OLD FOLK                                        Gerontophobia

PUBLIC PLACES                            Agoraphobia

RAIN                                                   Pluviophobia

SNAKES                                           Ophidiophobia

SPEAKING IN PUBLIC                    Glossophobia

SPIDERS                                          Arachnophobia

URINE                                                Urophobia

VD                                                      Cypridophobia

WOMEN                                            Gynephobia


So what can be done about phobias?

Well, the first thing I want to do is to ‘rubbish’ three so-called treatments which many people try. They are:

1. Simply ‘pulling yourself together,’ and maintaining a ‘stiff upper lip.’ This is MOST unlikely to work, although of course no harm in trying!

2. Having a stiff drink. A lot of people try to get over their phobias by having a large sherry or whisky when the phobic situation occurs. This calms the nerves for a short time, but is likely to lead to a bigger and bigger intake of alcohol.

3. Taking tranquillisers. Unfortunately, tens of thousands of phobia sufferers have gone down this road – usually abetted by foolish doctors. Alas, ‘trannies’ like Valium (diazepam) can’t do more than provide a temporary relief – and the person is very likely to become hooked on them.

Well, what WILL work then?

The answer is to seek psychological treatment. There are various types available, including:

Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): This is a clever but commonsense method, in which the therapist teaches the patient to find new and less harmful ways of looking at threatening and frightening things.

Counselling and Psychotherapy: These are approaches in which the therapist encourages the sufferer to TALK about her fears. Some experts use ‘desensitization’ (described above), while others use ‘implosion’ - in which the patient voluntarily agrees to be exposed to the full force of the threat. (For instance, some people have been cured of fear of snakes by spending a couple of hours in the Reptile House at London Zoo!)

Hypnotherapy: In the hands of a good practitioner, a patient can learn to lose all her anxieties about phobic objects and situations.

Group Therapy: Talking with other people who have the same sort of terrors is often helpful; also it usually costs less than individual treatment.

Much more information about treatment of phobias is available on the excellent website of the National Phobics Society, which is:


If YOU have a phobia (and if you’ve read this far, it’s quite likely that you or a loved one is suffering from phobic symptoms), then follow these rules:

Don’t just try and put up with it;

Don’t try and cure it with pills (though admittedly, there are circumstances in which anti-depressants can be helpful);

Do seek psychological help – even if you have to pay for it.

Remember: phobias CAN be cured – and often are!

Q         My wife has become incredibly frightened of anything SHARP, e.g. scissors or knives. Why has this happened to her?

A         It’s not usually possible to discover the actual CAUSE of a phobia – though these illnesses are commoner in people who have had tense, stressful childhoods. But the important thing now is that your wife should get some good therapy.

Q         I have recently become quite terrified of CATS. If I went for psychotherapy, as my GP suggests, could I be certain of being cured in one session?

A         No, ma’am. It’s almost unknown for anyone to be cured after the first consultation. But half a dozen sessions should with luck lead to a considerable improvement.

Q         My husband has become quite irrationally frightened of dining out with other people. We have been referred to a therapist, but he wants to charge £100 a session. Would it really be worth it?

A         If it turns your husband’s life around, yes. These ‘eating phobias’ are awfully distressing for the victim. If you could put things right by paying £600 or £1,000, it would be money well spent.

© 2006   Dr David Delvin / Retirement Matters Ltd