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  6. Feature Story: Irrational Fears


By Madelyn Moore, Staff Writer

Overwhelming fear wraps its tendrils tightly around you. You focus on your breathing. In and out. Yet regardless of your horrible encounter with fear, there is laughter all around you.

Irrational fears are incredibly difficult to face, as most people are simply laughed at for their odd fear. These fears are more common than realized, as students at Salem High School were quick to admit. 

Carolyn Casey, a senior at SHS, has found that her most irrational fear is worms. 

“I was walking outside right after a flash flood barefoot, and I stepped on something really squishy, and I looked down and saw hundreds of worms scattered around my driveway,” Casey said. 

Since then, Casey has attempted a form of exposure therapy with no positive outcome, and has accepted that her fear has wormed its way into her frontal lobe for life. 

She admitted that most people think her fear is unusual or even sad, but also justified. 

Sophomore Flora Wade is terrified of high school bathrooms. 

She said there are usually too many people in the restroom, who are not even utilizing it correctly. She said that often she notices people do not wash their hands. 

“It just freaks me out, and I know there are worse things in the world to be scared of, but it makes me nervous,” Wade said. 

Assistant Principal Jerry Hickey has always had a phobia of frogs and, oddly, his sister does as well. 

“I am not really sure how it developed,” he said. “I haven’t tried to fight it, but do my best to stay away from frogs.”

Hickey added that most people think that his fear is crazy and that no one should be afraid of frogs. 

Although irrational fears seem silly or even unexplainable, their presence has more meaning than most suspect. 

Todd Alexander, the psychology teacher at SHS, said, ”I would maybe rename the term ‘irrational fears’ to be called phobias or ‘specific phobias.’”

Ellen Kelley, a licensed clinical social worker for 25 years, better explained irrational fears or phobias, and their process of development. 

“There are three origins and sometimes the fear is from multiple origins,” Kelley said. 

First, she explained past trauma (trauma while the brain was developing). This trauma can change the makeup of the brain and cause it to function differently. 

Second, Kelley broke down that any kind of chemical change in the brain can cause fear reactions. This includes illegal or prescribed drugs, a physical illness (such as cancer, a small or large stroke, high blood pressure) and even something as seemingly simple as too much caffeine, or not enough water or sleep. 

“Thirdly it can seem ‘irrational,’ but it is really kind of rational,” Kelley said. “For example, during the pandemic and quarantine, our brains were trying to protect us by making us feel cautious. And sometimes this caution went too far, like the panic attacks I had in the grocery store when I saw empty shelves.”

Alexander added that phobias could develop from a multitude of sources, but he believes that they mostly develop due to behavioral experiences in one's environment during their developmental years.

“For instance, a child who has a flashbulb memory of the moment he was being chased by a seemingly vicious dog may have developed and generalized into a phobia of all dogs,” Alexander said. 

 He described that phobias could also be socially learned through observation.  “For instance, the phobia of public speaking may develop due to widespread concerns/worries/nerves associated with others who have had bad experiences when giving speeches in front of large audiences,” Alexander said. 

Kelley explained that if you can identify which type of fear it is, you can work on it. 

“If it is trauma, see a therapist who specializes in trauma,” Kelley said. “There are daily new and incredibly effective trauma treatments, such as EMDR or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.”

 Alexander said that phobias can be unlearned. 

“There is a process called deconditioning or systematic desensitization,” Alexander said. “Ideally, the person would gradually be exposed to what causes them highented fear/anxiety and along the way including deep breathing/relaxation techniques and rationalized questioning/thinking such that the person eventually unlearns the fear.”

Kelley also encouraged getting a good, thorough check-up from your primary care physician, and having them look for physical explanations including drug interactions.

 “Make sure you are living a healthy life: eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising,” Kelley said. “Recent studies show that exercise can be as effective as medication to treat anxiety and depression.”

She acknowledged that when you are having irrational fears, the last thing you want to do is exercise. 

“But find exercise that is somewhat fun: a walk in the woods, dancing in the living room to your favorite music,” Kelley said. 

She added that taking care of your mental health is just like taking care of your physical health, and can help prevent irrational fears from taking over your life. Although the fear may never be completely eliminated, the goal is to not allow them to consume your life. 

“Deal with your childhood stuff in therapy early,” Kelly said. “Journal, journal, journal. The act of writing it down with a pen and paper, not a computer, can actually help heal the brain. It is almost magical.” 

She said that of course it is also important to get enough sleep, eat well, and control levels of caffeine, sugar and exercise. 

In addition, Kelley explained that it is difficult to know how common irrational fears truly are. 

“Many people keep their fears hidden and it is hard to count them,” Kelley said. “One time while I was helping support families whose houses had flooded, I met a man who had not left his house for 25 years. We were able to get him some help. But 25 years of an untreated irrational fear is harder to treat than one that has been happening for months or even a few years.” 

About 10% of people in the US have a major mental illness, Kelley explained, but only about 3% to 4% have life debilitating irrational fears.

“Most people have a fear that seems irrational like a fear of spiders, clowns, or flying, but usually the fear doesn’t interfere with life,” Kelley said. “A fear of clowns, for example, is debilitating only if you work in the circus.”

Alexander added that phobias are likely to be very situational and the person would likely do what they can to avoid the situations that cause them the most distress. 

“I have a cousin for example that is deathly afraid of sharks, which she attributes to having been scared of them since seeing the Jaws movies as a child,” Alexander said. “She will not ever step foot in any coastal/ocean waters and never wants to ever go to a beach - but she lives her life just fine otherwise, and even has an above ground pool in her backyard that she swims in during the summers.”

There are several "odd" fears that may make you think "What? Do people actually have that kind of fear?" 

The first one that came to Alexander’s mind is called triskaidekaphobia which is "fear of the number 13."  

Another is arachibutyrophobia, or the fear of having peanut butter stick to the roof of your mouth. 

“When I was your all's age, I had experienced like three or four car accidents by the time I was 18- two of which were very bad accidents,” Alexander said.

One of those wrecks, he still experiences flashbacks of the moment the wreck happened. 

“I still experience some residual ‘cringe’ feelings whenever I drive or am driving as a passenger, but I manage those moments and don't let those nervous moments prevent me from going places or driving,” Alexander said. “Also, if anything, those experiences have made me a more conscious and careful driver.”

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