When phobias attack!

Rose Heppner, Staff Writer

The moment Capri Curtis steps into an elevator, she feels the walls caving in, the air thinning as the doors close, the horrifyingly audible beating of her heart.

“I’m terrified of my body feeling trapped, not so much as being in a small room, but it’s so bad to the point where too tight of jeans or too tight of a long sleeve shirt can actually make me start to panic and cry,” junior Capri Curtis said.

She isn’t alone when it comes to living with fear. Some 6.3 million Americans report living with a diagnosed phobia, according to the 2016 Statistic Brain Research Institute.

Her phobia has become so extreme that she could experience a panic attack from not only closed doors and elevators, but if her legs are trapped within the sheets of her own bed.

Curtis listed a number of places that her phobia can become active, even including friends homes, concerts, and social events. If someone hugs Curtis a bit too tightly, her claustrophobia may take over.

Curtis said, “I’m not able to go about my life because I have to force myself into doing the easiest things, meanwhile all day I’m holding back tears.” Her phobia takes over her everyday activities, it’s no longer merely a fear, it has become her life.

Although every day is a battle for Curtis, she continues to try and overcome her fear. Curtis sees two therapists in response to her phobia. 

What is a phobia?

The Mayo Clinic describes a phobia as, “an overwhelming and unreasonable fear of an object or situation that poses little real danger but provokes anxiety and avoidance.”

Encyclopedia Britannica writes that phobias typically revolve around associating a past negative event with every future, similar situation.

Senior Michelle DeValeria’s phobia of birds did not start until the sixth grade. “A bird flew in my face and hit me while I was riding my horse, and that was probably the start of it,” DeValeria said.

Before then, DeValeria said she “didn’t like birds, I just wasn’t afraid of them.” It was not until that single traumatizing event that changed her entire outlook on our feathered friends.

NDP senior Gracyn Rivera describes her fear of birds as a promotion of nervous and fearful feelings whenever there is a flock around. “Or the occasional bird flying around the cafeteria terrifies me,” Rivera said. 

Phobias differ from everyday normal fears in the sense that they completely take over a person’s life. While normal fears can be identified with rational and justifiable thoughts, Mayo Clinic states that phobias force a person to change the course of his day to be sure he avoids what may trigger his phobia.

This is wholly different than becoming nervous upon encountering threatening situations such as dimly lit alleyways, menacing dogs, and nighttime subway rides.

This is refusing to travel to a relative’s wedding due to a fear of flying, or, as mentioned by Melinda Smith, M.A., Robert Segal, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. in the article “Phobias and Fears,” purposely neglecting necessary doctor’s visits or vaccinations due to a fear of needles.

Phobias directly restrict an individual from living a life of freedom, as they become a slave to a negative and unwavering mindset.

This is extremely noticeable in social phobias, or social anxiety disorder. Mayo Clinic describes this fear as one that deliberately interferes with a person’s everyday life including routines, work or school.

Mayo Clinic states that social phobia and social anxiety does not derive from a mere discomfort in social situations, but a deeply troubling and persistent fear of embarrassment, acceptance, and discomfort. Oftentimes this phobia forces those who suffer from it to expect the worst outcome from any social situation.

This differs from those who experience anxiety when giving speeches or performing in public. Mayo Clinic utilizes the terminology “performance anxiety” when referring to a general fear of public speaking.

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Source: 2016 Statistic Brain Research Institute

What really sets phobias and anxiety disorders apart from a mere discomfort or feeling out of one’s element, is the distinct symptoms they produce.

Social anxiety does not only have intense mental stimulants but also has a direct physical reaction. Mayo Clinic lists nausea, trouble catching your breath, dizziness, feeling ‘out of body,’ and muscle tension as symptoms of social anxiety.

Furthermore, social anxiety oftentimes makes even what is considered to be mundane tasks extreme triggers to the phobia.

Mayo Clinic goes as far to include using a public restroom or making eye contact with another to be difficult to endure with social anxiety. Even going to the grocery store to return items and have an interaction with a stranger can be overwhelming to a person struggling with social phobia.

Social anxiety can also be triggered by pre-existing stress, causing social interactions with people to become increasingly difficult.

Variety of treatments for a phobia

However, there are treatment options, and Mayo Clinic strongly advises a person who is struggling with intense social anxiety that ends up having a permeating, negative affect on his or her life contact his or her doctor. Mayo Clinic even specifies that these phobias, “[require] treatment  to get better.”

Mayo Clinic specifies three tests available to those afflicted with mental illness: a physical exam, lab tests, and a psychological evaluation.

A physical exam is more or less a typical physical a person will receive by his or her doctor once every year or so. The physical focuses less on a psychological analysis of the patient, but simply a physical evaluation that may rule out physical problems that could contribute to the symptoms the patient is experiencing.

Lab tests are sent in as screenings of different muscle functions or drug tests to simply understand the dichotomy of the patient.

Finally, the last test is a psychological evaluation which essentially focuses on the subject’s mentality and behavior tendencies. These are evaluated through a survey conducted by a medical professional or mental health specialist.

According to Mayo Clinic, there are 20 main classes of mental illness. For phobias, a person would fall under ‘Anxiety disorders,’ which Mayo Clinic describes as, “an emotion characterized by the anticipation of future danger or misfortune.”

Mary Ellen Anderson, NDP’s student support specialist, said that phobias are difficult to counsel as they are based on fears that aren’t a reality.

However, that does not deem them any less important. “When you go into that panic, there’s nothing that can shake it away from you,” Anderson said.

Anderson does not have experience in counseling phobias, but then again many do not. Anderson explains that there is not a direct approach for treating phobias, although specific programs are offered.

Anderson, like most counselors, is trained in CPR and first aid. Counselors are trained to have a knowledge of basic mental illness such as bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, etc., simply to, “know what you’re up against” as Anderson puts it.

However, therapy in school settings is very unlikely, especially since with extreme phobias and mental illness, medications are often involved in treatment.

Anderson discusses that one of the best ways in coping with phobias is working with someone who is best equipped in helping overcome them. Furthermore, gradually introducing the phobia or situations that may trigger the phobia in larger quantities allow the person to better cope with his or her fears.

She makes a point to highlight that phobias can be treated differently. For example, someone who has a fear of flying may take medication to help themselves relax and decrease their levels of anxiety.

Another method is known as desensitization, or an exposure to fear as Anderson describes it. A person who fears flying may go through simulations or instances that bring them closer to actually encountering their fear; each step progressing closer to when he or she purchases an airline ticket and flies on a plane.

David Grand, a clinical social worker and specialist in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, discusses how a person can analyze a person’s eye position to delegate where the brain stores traumatic events.

This specific form of therapy is called “brainspotting.” This method must be practiced by specialists who have been trained in brainspotting, however when used with a separate therapy such as those discussed above, it can actually be extremely effective.

Brainspotting is described by Grand as a “noninvasive method for relieving post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression, and anxiety.”

Grand describes that during a brainspotting therapy session, bilateral sounds are played and act as stimulants for each part of the patient’s brain.

Tracy Ross, writer for Active Interest Media, used brainspotting to combat her fear of heights. She describes that eye positions and where a person holds her gaze is directly related to the recollection of traumatic events.

When she was instructed to relive traumatic events where her phobia came into play, her eyes shot up to the left. However, when the specialist instructed her to think of something comforting, her eyes immediately went to the left.

The specialist repeated this system several times, causing her eyes to continuously move from the left to the right. According to brainspotting, this system is meant to erase these traumatic events, replacing fear with calming, comforting memories.

After completing sessions of brainspotting, Ross said that she still struggles with her fear of heights, but this method helped her lessen the heightened emotions that occur during incidents where extreme anxiety can occur.

For others, faith over fear is an effective way to cope with extreme fear and heartbreak. 

Ms. Julian: spotlight on anxiety disorder

Ms. Julian submits grades for her AP Literature class.
Ms. Julian submits grades for her AP Literature class.

For English teacher Siri Julian, simple breathing techniques help her cope with situations where extreme stress can occur. Ms. Julian experiences severe anxiety on airplanes, but utilizes breathing exercises to help keep herself from having a panic attack.

“Mainly when I was in college, I would do these breathing techniques, and I think people would think I was going to bomb the plane.” she said. “I would just be really nervous and pacing in circles.”

Ms. Julian would practice deep breathing exercises to help calm herself, a nurse instructing her to breathe in for four seconds and then release for four seconds. She had become so advanced at them she could reach sixteen seconds before she stopped inhaling.

Even just thinking about small simple mantras, like a Charlie Brown cartoon that says, “Sometimes when you lie in bed, you realize you have nothing to worry about….that always worries me,” calms Ms. Julian down when she is facing an anxiety attack.

Ms. Julian said she believes this cartoon only solidified the irrationality of her fear; whenever she found herself on an airplane, she understood the overwhelming anxiety she was experiencing wasn’t based on any existing, imminent danger.

However, simply admitting that the triggers of one’s anxiety is rooted in irrationality does not cure it or stop panic attacks from taking over.

Ms. Julian said that anything could set off her panic attacks. From being in a grocery store line to sitting in traffic, the stress of simply existing in a busy place can become almost too much to bear.

She describes her panic attacks as extreme moments of hypersensitivity. She feels the vibration of people walking, the electric humming and flickering of fluorescent lights and a sensing of colors and noises not normally picked up by others.

Her attention to detail comes to the forefront, and a feeling she could only describe as “getting shot right in my gut right under my sternum” starts to take over. That is her panic attacks.

A close friend to Ms. Julian had recently underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor and had to be put on medication. Unfortunately, the medication she was on was causing panic attacks which she had never before experienced.

After she came out of the hospital, she went to Ms. Julian and apologized. Not because she had anything to be sorry about, but because she finally understood what her friend had suffered with for so long, even saying, “I had a panic attack, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, how did Siiri do this without being a drug addict.’

“It is not something you can empathize with because unless you are going through it you don’t know,” Ms. Julian said. The truth is, unless a person experiences it for him or herself, these feelings cannot be fully understood by another person.

Although Ms. Julian believes panic attacks did not hold her back from exploring Europe, traveling the world and pursuing love, she did refrain from applying to certain colleges because she wasn’t sure if she could handle moving.

“It’s kind of how agoraphobia works; I know this place so I’ll stay here,” she said.

On campus

One-third of the respondents of an NDP student survey indicated that they struggles with some type of anxiety or phobia.

Of those who responded, 82.4 percent said they had a family member or friend who struggled with one.

Phobias are not taboo; they are very much in existence on NDP’s campus as well as outside the NDP community. The more students understand they are not alone and the faster students realize they can seek a therapy that fits their lifestyle, the sooner teenagers can live without fear.