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It’s Friday the 13th: Beware of fear becoming a phobia

Avoiding black cats, broken mirrors and the undersides of ladders are all a part of the pop culture trappings of Friday the 13th, but what happens when fears and superstitions become phobias?

Fears are natural and help us avoid danger, said Wally Goddard, professor and family life specialist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

“It’s natural to have a fear of snakes if you live in a place where snakes can kill you,” he said.

However, in the untidy world of human emotions and reactions “you can see a snake and 15 minutes later, slam your finger in a door and hate snakes. There’s no connection, but a negative experience within a reasonable amount of time can lead to a phobia,” he said.

“A phobia is something beyond fear,” said James Marshall, associate professor and family life specialist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. “A phobia causes some sort of psychological or physiological impairment.”

An example, he said, would be someone with arachnophobia who had found a spider on his arm and froze — unable to move or speak.

“Phobias are a very common mental disorder,” Marshall said. “It is estimated that about 10 percent of people will experience a phobia during their lifetime.”

“Phobias come from two sources: biological preconditioning and a bad experience,” Goddard said. “Related to biology, there are only about two dozen sources that generate phobias, such as open spaces, crowds, animals, insects, closed spaces, heights, illness, and storms. Human history is embedded in our bodies and tells us that these things can be dangerous.”

The good news, Goddard said, is that “phobias are among the most changeable of human disorders. They can be trained into us, and generally, they can be trained out.”

While fears can be managed through rational thought, phobias cannot. Treatment with a trained professional can include a gradual desensitization to the trigger, or can be immersive.

“It involves being peaceful and relaxed and allowing an individual to gradually experience whatever it is that sets off the phobia,” Goddard said.

An immersive approach involves a sudden diving into the deep end to overcome the phobia. It’s an approach that requires care and can sometimes backfire, Marshall said.

For more information on family life and relationships, contact your county extension office or visit our family life page at www.arfamilies.org/.

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