This post isn’t ‘Phobias 101.’ It’s about the kinds of well-intentioned (or less so) enquiries that phobia sufferers are sometimes subject to. If you would like to know more, you can find detailed information here and here.
Phobias are very common and often misunderstood
Once upon a time the level of fear evoked by a phobia may have been useful, because it encouraged us to avoid genuinely dangerous things like poisonous snakes. In modern life, some phobias have a certain logic to them, despite statistical reassurance – for example, if you are in sitting in a jet-powered metal box 30,000 feet up in the sky.
They can also be distressing and debilitating
A phobic attack is really unpleasant. The body goes straight into a very primal state of fight or flight. If you don’t manage to get away from the situation or object fast enough, it can take several hours to calm down.
Sometimes people plan their lives around their phobia, in case they are triggered. Thoughtlessly placed glass lifts and open footbridges can be really unhelpful to those with vertigo or agoraphobia, so routes have to be planned meticulously. Someone who is claustrophobic needs to gamble on whether the rush hour tube train will get stuck in a tunnel and whether it would be easier to spend two hours getting home on the bus. Some people never use underground trains at all and experience long convoluted journeys if they want to go anywhere. Arachnophobes may end up choosing to live higher off the ground so it is less likely that spiders will come in from outside.
They are also hard to explain
Perhaps due to the seemingly mysterious nature of phobias and the extreme responses they evoke in the sufferer, non-phobics (even with the best intentions) often make statements and ask questions that are at best unhelpful and at worst potentially damaging. Given parts of our culture’s obsession with the rational and explainable, the phobic person may be called upon to give an account of their apparent irrationality solely for others’ benefit.
Here is a list of things it’s best not to say to someone with a phobia:
(1) ‘Ha ha, really?! That’s too weird!’
The phobic person is likely to have taken a lot of time wondering about their phobia. Mocking or questioning them is not going to help.
(2) ‘Lol! There’s one right behind you!’
For some people, just seeing a picture of the feared object can cause a reaction. (The internet makes this a lot more challenging.) At worst at comment like this could cause someone to have a panic attack.
(3) ‘That three-year-old over there isn’t scared.’
It’s hard to know where to begin to unpack this. Just don’t go there.
(4) ‘That spider/dog/snake is more scared of you than you are of it.’
As well as being mostly untrue, this brings a jarring personalisation into the encounter, as if there was some sort of mutual exchange going on.
(5) ‘But I saw you do X the other day.’
So – well spotted – you saw them going down into the tube. Perhaps it was 11am and they had spent hours weighing up the mental risks of getting on the train against the importance of their appointment, and calculated that the tube would not be excessively crowded at this time. They may spend their entire journey praying nothing bad happens.
(6) ‘Have you tried CBT/hypnosis/flooding therapy?’
They may have tried all sorts of things. At the same time, it’s also likely that shame around their situation has prevented them from doing so. It’s also best not to keep offering to do therapy on them yourself, however kindly meant, even if you are a trained practitioner.
(7) ‘One day I decided to conquer my fear of cats/mushrooms/lifts. If I did, then so can you. You can choose to change your feelings.’
I have written elsewhere about the idea that you can ‘choose how you feel’.
(8) ‘Can’t you just pull yourself together?’
This one applies to mental health conditions across the spectrum. Please don’t say this to anyone, ever. It’s profoundly invalidating.
(9) ‘I read somewhere that people who live in war zones don’t suffer from phobias, and it’s just people with easy lives in the West who get them.’
Ah, how westerners love to tell each other how easy their lives are. A person who makes such a statement is generally hiding a vulnerability of their own.
Actually, this could be a bingo card. If you know of any others like these, please send them over.