A Tale of Phobias

From the time he was a little baby Mwadime had a deep-rooted fear for heights and water. Possessing sleepy eyes, a voice that sounds perpetually congested, shoulder long dreadlocks and an ursine build, Mwadime is perhaps the most unlikely heartthrob on the Kenyan beaches. He is in the constant company of exotic women, much to the chagrin of many men. Looking at him now, one would think that it is not one and the same person. A beach boy, he has now managed to overcome his fear of water and splashes around in the ocean with synchronized strokes of a seasoned swimmer. He has however not overcome his fear of heights. The fear of heights is called acrophobia. The fear of water is called aquaphobia.A phobia is an excessive, enduring fear of clearly defined objects or situations that interferes with a person’s normal functioning. Although they know their fear is irrational, people with phobias always try to avoid the source of their fear.
He confides in me “when I was a kid I had an intense dread for heights. I could not cross a bridge. My fear was so pronounced that all my journeys would end as soon as we got to a bridge. I used to throw such strong tantrums that would keep my fellow travelers from continuing with their journey for hours on end. Even if it was on a highway, I would only cross the bridge on all fours and smack in the middle of the tarmac; alternatively they would have to hire a vehicle to take me across the bridge. It was all so dreadful”
He is not alone Bakari, a fellow tradesman, says a bad experience in childhood cemented his fear of animals. “I was climbing a tree when to support myself with a branch I reached out and grabbed it. This was no ordinary branch. It felt soft and cold.” He pauses and takes a deep puff at his cigarette. “I craned my head to seen what it was” he continues, “Behold! There was a long elongation from a chameleons mouth that I later learnt was its tongue all the way shy of an inch to my face. My first reaction was one of panic, I thought I would be my last day on planet earth, In this threatened position, I let go of the branch and fell a long way down on my behind. I couldn’t breathe for a few minutes but that wasn’t the most pressing problem, I was glad I was safely back on solid ground where no such dangers daunt me. To this day I cannot be within a substantial feet with a chameleon, they creep me.”
There is a feeling of bonding when men share their fears together. It was acrimonious that many people have some kind of phobia. The group of men talking together in hushed tones was sufficient evidence to justify the fact that a lot of people have some form of phobia. I slowly leave them to their bonding and with my heart pounding; wade into the ocean to face my own phobia: that of drowning!
Phobic anxiety is distinguishable from other forms of anxiety only in that it occurs specifically in relation to a certain object or situation. This anxiety is characterized by physiological symptoms such as a rapid, pounding heartbeat, stomach disorders, nausea, diarrhea, frequent urination, and choking feelings, flushing of the face, perspiration, tremulousness, and faintness. Some phobic people are able to confront their fears. More commonly, however, they avoid the situation or object that causes the fear-an avoidance that impairs the sufferer’s freedom.
Psychiatrists recognize three major types of phobias. Simple phobias are fears of specific objects or situations such as animals, closed spaces, and heights. The second type, agoraphobia, is fear of open, public places and situations (such as public vehicles and crowded shopping centers) from which escape is difficult; agoraphobics tend increasingly to avoid more situations until eventually they become housebound. Social phobias, the third type, are fears of appearing stupid or shameful in social situations. The simple phobias, especially the fear of animals, may begin in childhood and persist into adulthood. Agoraphobia characteristically begins in late adolescence or early adulthood, and social phobia is also associated with adolescence. People with panic disorder frequently develop agoraphobia, a fear of being in places or situations from which escape might be difficult if a panic attack occurs. People with agoraphobia typically fear situations such as traveling in a bus, train, car, or airplane, shopping at malls, going to theaters, crossing over bridges or through tunnels, and being alone in unfamiliar places. Therefore, they avoid these situations and may eventually become reluctant to leave their home. In addition, people with panic disorder appear to have an increased risk of alcoholism and drug dependence. Some studies indicate they also have a higher risk of depression and suicide.
Although agoraphobia is more often seen in treatment than the other types of phobia, it is not believed to be as common as simple phobia. Taken together, the phobias are believed to afflict 5 to 10 persons in 100. Agoraphobia and simple phobia are more commonly diagnosed in women than in men; the distribution for social phobia is not known. Agoraphobias, social phobias, and animal phobias tend to run in families.
Behavioral techniques have proved successful in treating phobias, especially simple and social phobias. One technique, systematic desensitization, involves gradually confronting the phobic person with situations or objects that are increasingly close to the feared ones. Exposure therapy, another behavioral method, has recently been shown more effective. In this technique, phobics are repeatedly exposed to the feared situation or object so that they can see that no harm befalls them; the fear gradually fades. Antianxiety drugs have also been used as palliatives. Antidepressant drugs have also proved successful in treating some phobias.
Some of the treatment techniques used in behavior therapy became prominent enough to acquire specific names. Among them are systematic desensitization, aversion therapy, and biofeedback.
Systematic desensitization, the most widely used technique, attempts to treat disturbances having identifiable sources, such as a paralyzing fear of closed spaces. This method usually involves training the individual to relax in the presence of fear-producing stimuli. The therapist assumes that the anxiety reaction will be replaced gradually with the new relaxation response; this is called reciprocal inhibition.
Aversion therapy is used to break disabling bad habits. An aversive stimulus, such as an electric shock, is given together with the “bad habit,” such as an alcoholic drink. Repeated pairings result in changing the values of such stimuli from positive attraction to repulsion.
Biofeedback is most often used in treating disturbed behavior that has a physical basis. It provides an individual with information about an ongoing physiological process such as blood pressure or heartbeat rate. By the use of a mechanical device, indications of moment-to-moment variations in bodily functioning can be observed and monitored by the individual. The therapist may provide some reward for desirable changes, such as a decrease in blood pressure.
Applied behavior analysis is used to develop educational and treatment techniques that can be tailored to each individual’s requirements while still following a constant format, whether the patients are retarded or disturbed children in a school or residential setting, or adults in a psychiatric hospital or rehabilitation center.
As I come out the water, after some minutes the men seem to have broken up their discussion. Mwadime is now in the company of two Caucasian beauties. Bakari is still talking puffs at his cigarette, it calms down his nerves he says. The sun in the distant horizon offers a marvelous view. Splendid! I see Mwadime and his female friends approaching my direction and wonder what he could possibly want. He asks me if I would mind keeping one of the lady friends company. I look at them with gleeful eyes. The one in purple is mine. He grudgingly accepts. I start making my way to the lady in purple, I love the coast!