The Sum of all Fears

Hayley Edwards and Sarah Smith 1 February 2008

 

The prime age for developing a phobia is twenty. Couple this with the overwhelming stress that constitutes a Cambridge degree and you have a recipe for irrational fears and intense anxieties in students across the university. The Cambridge Student looks at the sometimes devastating effects of phobias in the student population.

It’s estimated that one in every ten people in the UK are living with some sort of phobia. These range from common fears of blood, flying and mild claustrophobia, to anxieties about some more unusual things, such as mushrooms and toilets. For most people, phobias are mild and will not impact on their daily lives.

However, being forced to confront their fears, for example, if it is medically necessary to go to the dentist, can provoke illness, even violence. Symptoms include a dry mouth, lump in the throat, palpitations, flushing, sweating, trembling and dizziness, through to more serious chest pain, panic attacks and fainting. One student described coming into close contact with her phobia; “I feel sick, my pulse races, I get sweaty and tense up, as if I’m trying to make myself as small as possible.”

Panic attacks are often interpreted by sufferers as heart attacks, which heightens a person’s state of terror, to the point where they ‘depersonalise,’ and feel that they are outside of their body and helplessly detached from their experience. “I started having them just after my mum died” says a sufferer. “Rather than allow myself to grieve, whenever I thought about my mum I just got so anxious that I started sweating and found it incredibly hard to breathe. It’s horrible, like squeezing all the air out of your lungs, yet at the same time you can’t stop your own body from doing it. It took months to get them under control.”

Phobias are, essentially, anxiety disorders, and while the majority of students here will feel stressed at least once during their time here, this is tension on a different level. Statistics show that 16% of 20-24 year-olds have suffered a neurotic episode, while another 4% have suffered a depressive period or from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and these figures are, worryingly, on the rise.

A sufferer of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder stressed the need for friends, not just therapy, to help; “I had a major problem with compulsively repeating certain things, like cleaning the kitchen, to the point where I couldn’t leave if someone else had been in it since. I wouldn’t still be studying here if it weren’t for the support of my friends, who helped me understand what was wrong in the first place.”

Social phobias, or fears of interaction of any kind, are a major problem. Social anxiety has been ranked as third most common mental health problem in the Western world after depression and alcohol abuse.

In terms of specific situational fears the National Co Morbidity study data ranked fear of public speaking as the most common at 30%, followed by fear of talking to strangers 13%, fear of going to a party or social outing at 10% and fear of eating and drinking at 4.6%. Research at Plymouth University found 83% of students felt serious anxiety about seminar presentations, while 24% experienced irrational panic at least once over a period of 6 months, and 55% reported stress. 12% of students are classed as having generalised social anxiety, or GSA.

These figures are more than likely underestimating levels of stress and anxiety disorders in Cambridge, particularly approaching exam term. Social insecurities like these can lead to Body Dysmorphic Disorder, or ‘imagined ugliness syndrome,’ causing the sufferer to perceive defects in themselves, often unnoticeable by others.

Agoraphobia, while being one of the most common fears, is still potentially life-changing. One student told us of a clear case of agoraphobia within her college, “Whenever you walked past his window, whatever time of day or night, he would be sitting in his room, in front of his computer. I spoke to him a few times in the kitchen and on that basis, he was completely normal. He just never left those few rooms.”

On the other hand, claustrophobia can work in strange ways; sufferers can feel safe in some well-known small spaces, but feel trapped in a crowd of people. One sufferer told us how he avoided crowded places as much as possible, which, in Cambridge, is no mean feat. “I would make excuses to my friends not to go out, I felt much safer in my room, where there was no danger of feeling trapped.”

Since 2005, a new phobia has been brought to our attention: toilet phobia. The National Phobias Society claims that 4 million people in Britain are affected by the phobia, which can range from a disliking of public toilets to the inability to leave the home. Some sufferers may even deny themselves fluids to prevent them needing to use public toilets, which can seriously damage the kidneys.

The phobia becomes particularly dangerous when individuals refuse to give urine samples in a hospital environment. Professor Paul Salkovskis claims the problem may be derived from the way society views toilets, as “around the world we use a lot of humour and euphemism to describe what is a basic human function”. Nicky Lidbetter, manager of the National Phobics Society, postulates that people will avoid admitting this particular phobia: “to admit that they have a toilet-related phobia is rare because of the obvious embarrassment and humiliation of being laughed at or not being taken seriously.”

Individuals displaying Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder behaviour are particularly prone to toilet phobia, which can arise out of an intense fear of contamination. Toilet phobia can also manifest itself in the shape of Paruresis, or shy bladder syndrome, the fear of urinating in front of others, as well as Parcopresis, bashful bowel syndrome, fear of defecating in public toilets.

The general public understanding of cures seems to be limited. Christopher Jackson, from the University Counselling Service, says that there is a serious problem in curing phobias, not because people refuse to acknowledge they have them, but because they refuse to seek treatment for them.

“The evidence suggests that people with a phobia rarely seek therapeutic input. Why is this? We don’t know for sure, but it’s possible that people tend to find a way to live their lives around their fear, and they simply teach themselves to put up with it. It’s also likely that they find the prospect of addressing their fear quite intolerable – they might simply be too scared to ask for help, and that’s very sad.”

Avoiding the object of fear is something many do on a daily basis. While women are statistically twice as likely as men to have some sort of phobia, experts believe this is because they are more open to the possibility of admitting they are scared of something.

Regardless of what your phobia might be, or how embarrassing you might think it, Cambridge Counselling Service is there to ensure that students do not need to deal with their fears alone. Visit www.counselling.cam.ac.uk for advice.

 

 

 

 

Hayley Edwards & Sarah Smith

Investigations Editors

 

he prime age for developing a phobia is twenty. Couple this with the overwhelming stress that constitutes a Cambridge degree and you have a recipe for irrational fears and intense anxieties in students across the university. The Cambridge Student looks at the sometimes devastating effects of phobias in the student population.

It’s estimated that one in every ten people in the UK are living with some sort of phobia. These range from common fears of blood, flying and mild claustrophobia, to anxieties about some more unusual things, such as mushrooms and toilets. For most people, phobias are mild and will not impact on their daily lives.

However, being forced to confront their fears, for example, if it is medically necessary to go to the dentist, can provoke illness, even violence. Symptoms include a dry mouth, lump in the throat, palpitations, flushing, sweating, trembling and dizziness, through to more serious chest pain, panic attacks and fainting. One student described coming into close contact with her phobia; “I feel sick, my pulse races, I get sweaty and tense up, as if I’m trying to make myself as small as possible.”

Panic attacks are often interpreted by sufferers as heart attacks, which heightens a person’s state of terror, to the point where they ‘depersonalise,’ and feel that they are outside of their body and helplessly detached from their experience. “I started having them just after my mum died” says a sufferer. “Rather than allow myself to grieve, whenever I thought about my mum I just got so anxious that I started sweating and found it incredibly hard to breathe. It’s horrible, like squeezing all the air out of your lungs, yet at the same time you can’t stop your own body from doing it. It took months to get them under control.”

Phobias are, essentially, anxiety disorders, and while the majority of students here will feel stressed at least once during their time here, this is tension on a different level. Statistics show that 16% of 20-24 year-olds have suffered a neurotic episode, while another 4% have suffered a depressive period or from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and these figures are, worryingly, on the rise.

A sufferer of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder stressed the need for friends, not just therapy, to help; “I had a major problem with compulsively repeating certain things, like cleaning the kitchen, to the point where I couldn’t leave if someone else had been in it since. I wouldn’t still be studying here if it weren’t for the support of my friends, who helped me understand what was wrong in the first place.”

Social phobias, or fears of interaction of any kind, are a major problem. Social anxiety has been ranked as third most common mental health problem in the Western world after depression and alcohol abuse.

In terms of specific situational fears the National Co Morbidity study data ranked fear of public speaking as the most common at 30%, followed by fear of talking to strangers 13%, fear of going to a party or social outing at 10% and fear of eating and drinking at 4.6%. Research at Plymouth University found 83% of students felt serious anxiety about seminar presentations, while 24% experienced irrational panic at least once over a period of 6 months, and 55% reported stress. 12% of students are classed as having generalised social anxiety, or GSA.

These figures are more than likely underestimating levels of stress and anxiety disorders in Cambridge, particularly approaching exam term. Social insecurities like these can lead to Body Dysmorphic Disorder, or ‘imagined ugliness syndrome,’ causing the sufferer to perceive defects in themselves, often unnoticeable by others.

Agoraphobia, while being one of the most common fears, is still potentially life-changing. One student told us of a clear case of agoraphobia within her college, “Whenever you walked past his window, whatever time of day or night, he would be sitting in his room, in front of his computer. I spoke to him a few times in the kitchen and on that basis, he was completely normal. He just never left those few rooms.”

On the other hand, claustrophobia can work in strange ways; sufferers can feel safe in some well-known small spaces, but feel trapped in a crowd of people. One sufferer told us how he avoided crowded places as much as possible, which, in Cambridge, is no mean feat. “I would make excuses to my friends not to go out, I felt much safer in my room, where there was no danger of feeling trapped.”

Since 2005, a new phobia has been brought to our attention: toilet phobia. The National Phobias Society claims that 4 million people in Britain are affected by the phobia, which can range from a disliking of public toilets to the inability to leave the home. Some sufferers may even deny themselves fluids to prevent them needing to use public toilets, which can seriously damage the kidneys.

The phobia becomes particularly dangerous when individuals refuse to give urine samples in a hospital environment. Professor Paul Salkovskis claims the problem may be derived from the way society views toilets, as “around the world we use a lot of humour and euphemism to describe what is a basic human function”. Nicky Lidbetter, manager of the National Phobics Society, postulates that people will avoid admitting this particular phobia: “to admit that they have a toilet-related phobia is rare because of the obvious embarrassment and humiliation of being laughed at or not being taken seriously.”

Individuals displaying Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder behaviour are particularly prone to toilet phobia, which can arise out of an intense fear of contamination. Toilet phobia can also manifest itself in the shape of Paruresis, or shy bladder syndrome, the fear of urinating in front of others, as well as Parcopresis, bashful bowel syndrome, fear of defecating in public toilets.

The general public understanding of cures seems to be limited. Christopher Jackson, from the University Counselling Service, says that there is a serious problem in curing phobias, not because people refuse to acknowledge they have them, but because they refuse to seek treatment for them.

“The evidence suggests that people with a phobia rarely seek therapeutic input. Why is this? We don’t know for sure, but it’s possible that people tend to find a way to live their lives around their fear, and they simply teach themselves to put up with it. It’s also likely that they find the prospect of addressing their fear quite intolerable – they might simply be too scared to ask for help, and that’s very sad.”

Avoiding the object of fear is something many do on a daily basis. While women are statistically twice as likely as men to have some sort of phobia, experts believe this is because they are more open to the possibility of admitting they are scared of something.

Regardless of what your phobia might be, or how embarrassing you might think it, Cambridge Counselling Service is there to ensure that students do not need to deal with their fears alone. Visit www.counselling.cam.ac.uk for advice.

 

Hayley Edwards and Sarah Smith