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Poor Christina Ricci. Playing dead in the creepy new movie After Life (out this year) may not daunt her, but present her with a pot plant or suggest she go for a private dip in a swimming pool and she’s petrified.


Household plants freak her out and she won’t swim by herself because, as she told an interviewer, ‘I think that somehow a little magic door is going to open and let the shark out. I know there’s no way in hell that there’s going to be a shark in a chlorinated pool, but I’m so scared.’


Persistent irrational fears are called phobias, and Christina appears to suffer from both botanophobia (fear of plants) and selachophobia (extreme fear of sharks). Psychiatrists have come across other rare fears, including a fear of belly buttons and a fear of poverty held by a really wealthy individual who was afraid to stop working. An estimated three percent of people have simple phobias (fears of specific things), two percent have social phobia (fear of social interaction) and five percent have agoraphobia (fear of public places). And these fears can be crippling, getting in the way of relationships, careers and normal, everyday life.


Seeds of Fear


Some phobias may be linked to our survival instincts. Recent research has shown a connection with dysfunctional circuits in the brain – it seems over-reactivity of parts of the limbic system (the emotional centre of the brain) or of the brain stem may lead to faulty triggers of our fight/flight alarm system.


It’s also possible for a frightening experience, especially in our formative years, to trigger a phobia. Children have vivid imaginations and conjure up all types of fears. Given comfort and the freedom to express them, they move on – but sometimes, especially with a sensitive personality, a fear becomes entrenched. I find adults with an acute fear of making mistakes, such as those with social phobia, often experienced a very embarrassing and humiliating situation in childhood.


Rooting out a Phobia


Start with a GP in case the symptoms of extreme fear (dizziness, nausea, sweating, palpitations) have a physical basis such as a heart or hormone condition. They may also be linked to depression, substance abuse or eating disorders.


Even the most extreme phobia can be treated with one or more of the following: Psychotherapy: you talk through feelings about the phobia, exploring possible links with past problems. Hypnotherapy may help bring forgotten incidents to light. Behavior therapy: you learn alternative beliefs about your fear and some methods to handle it (deep breathing, relaxation). The therapist may gradually expose you to what you fear to desensitize you. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): you learn to assess the thoughts behind your feelings rationally and to spot unhelpful thinking patterns.


CBT combined with behavior therapy usually has the best chance of success. Medication: this is used in the short term as a way to relieve anxiety and depression while you tackle the underlying problem. But drugs should be prescribed only by a psychiatrist, who can first rule out possible associated problems such as bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder or schizophrenia.

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