PHOBIAS: Spiders and snakes and meat? Oh my!
ILLUSTRATION BY KATE BIZER
It stares up at her.
She can feel its heat, just a foot away from her face.
She feels her stomach churn as the fear rises inside her; she wants to scream, but everyone will think she’s crazy. Why is everyone else having such a good time? Her palms sweat. It’s as if she’s the only one that sees this disgusting monster, sitting right in front of her.
And to make matters worse, everyone else at the table has started to eat theirs.
This is no nightmare about a table covered with giant spiders. It’s real, it’s terrifying and it’s…
“I’m phobic of meat,” said Caius Schneider, 20 a mechanical engineering major at Washtenaw Community College from Berkley, Mich. “I have been a vegetarian for like seven years because of it.”
Schneider’s carnophobia, or her fear or meat, would be considered a phobia by most. But in psychology, the phobia label would only be used after the fear passed the specific diagnostic criteria of the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition). The DSM-IV is the psychology world’s bible for diagnosing mental disorders.
“People that see a spider might freak out then, but it will pass. That’s not a phobia,” said Ann Jones, a WCC part-time psychology faculty member. “With phobias, it can last hours, days, weeks — it can last your whole life.”
Both Jones and Larry Voight, another WCC part-time psychology faculty member, agree that the most important difference between a normal, healthy fear and a phobia is the impairment of daily life.
For example, if people are agoraphobic, they would be afraid of crowds, big spaces and leaving a “safe space.” If they felt so fearful that they couldn’t leave their home, they could have a phobia.
“I think what people don’t understand is the intensity,” said Voight. “That people don’t feel like they have any control.”
Schneider’s carnophobia isn’t the only phobia in the world that delves outside of the usual creepy crawly things. For example, actual people, not vampires, are alliumophobic, or afraid of garlic. And who knows how someone might come across the fact that they’re proctophobic, or afraid of rectums.
It’s easy to see, with phobias like these, how people might try to keep these fears to themselves instead of seeing a therapist or telling someone. They may seem funny, but real people suffer from them in very real ways. These stigmas are so strong that just under 90 percent of all people with phobias never seek any type of treatment.
ILLUSTRATION BY KATE BIZER
“It’s tough because (phobic people) often recognize it as irrational, and other people also recognize it as irrational and question us. That kind of questioning is really uncomfortable for someone suffering with a phobia,” said Voight.
Schneider is used to this exact kind of questioning, and worse. Since her phobia is unusual, a lot of her friends have a hard time understanding what the big deal is.
“They mostly just laugh at me. They’re just like, ‘Meat, what’s wrong with that? We eat it all the time!’” she said.
Schneider said that her fear is more of “an anxiety thing.” For the most part, she’s fine if she just avoids meat altogether: Touching it, eating it or cooking it. Even with all of this, Schneider still finds herself in situations that set off her anxiety.
“I’ve gotten in a lot of fights with people about it. I had an ex-boyfriend that would joke about it. He would give me food and snicker so then I would get suspicious,” said Schneider. “Yeah, that relationship didn’t work out!”
To deal with these phobias, there are several types of therapy, but a lot of treatments don’t finish. Many patients quit before treatment wraps up.
Of course, it’s easy to see why — all forms of therapy, save for medication, require the phobic person to face their fear.
“This isn’t something that the therapist is going to do to the client. It’s something that the client and the therapist are going to agree on,” said Jones. “If the therapist pushes too fast too quick, the client will just bolt. So the therapist has to be very sensitive to it.”
A lot of therapy techniques use something called “flooding,” in which the patient is guided by the therapist through whatever they fear.
At some point, the patient will “break through” the phobia, leaving them amazed that they lived through it.
“They realize, ‘That wasn’t so bad,’” said Voight. “With a little bit of help, they find that they become a little more of a master. They get motivated to deal with a lot of life fears.”
Witnessing someone experiencing a phobic episode can be a scary thing in itself. Many sufferers experience anxiety or even panic attacks.
During these times, Voight and Jones both suggest staying calm and receptive to the phobic person. And if you’re not sure what to say, Voight suggests just saying, “Uh-huh.”
“’Uh-huh’ means I hear you. I accept you. You’re fine,” said Voight. “When we feel that the world will support us a little bit, there’s hope.”