Every time Lamont B., 16, of Brooklyn, N.Y., goes near a window inside a high building, his heart begins to pound and he starts sweating. ‘Tin terrified of heights,” he explains. “I can’t go on rooftops or terraces or near cliff edges without getting dizzy and needing to get away.” Lamont suffers from a common fear that doctors call acrophobia, or fear of heights.
But don’t assume that Lamont is a fearful person in general. He has plenty of friends and does well in school. Lamont regularly performs his own raps at school talent shows, the kind of activity that makes many people choke up! In fact, stage fright and the fear of speaking in public are among the most common teen phobias.
What causes a person to fear one thing and not another? And what’s the difference between a true phobia and an ordinary, everyday fear?
Fear: Keeping You Safe
Fear, which helps keep us out of danger, is a complicated feeling. Need proof? People dislike fear and try their best to avoid it; yet many line up for roller coasters and horror movies. Television shows such as Fear Factor are also very popular. Experts say there’s a fine line between fear and phobia.
Fear is a normal, and an important, human reaction to something that seems dangerous. “It kicks into effect when we feel threatened to help us either fight off the danger or run away,” says Dr. David Fasslel; a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Burlington, Vt. When a person is scared, he or she goes through physical changes known as the fight-or-flight reaction. Blood pressure increases and heart rate speeds up to pump blood to the large muscles used to run away. The sweat glands produce perspiration to cool the body. So if you’re riding your bike and a car swerves too close to you, you can speed away more easily.
Lamont experienced that reaction recently: “One time I was walking to the video game store, and I walked by a lot [where] I didn’t know there was a dog. It started barking at me, and I started running. My body started moving on its own. I was moving without knowing where it was going. I felt like I could run faster than I had ever run in my life.”
Sometimes fear is triggered by a loud noise, such as the pop of a balloon or a loud clap of thunder. Often, a new or unknown situation sets off our sensors for potential danger. Young people experience more fear than adults do, because they face unfamiliar events and circumstances more frequently. Many teens fear being embarrassed in front of friends or classmates, speaking in public, or being rejected. Fear can be more severe when a person feels out of control or unable to escape. That is why many people enjoy haunted houses, horror movies, and bungee jumping. They experience the physical sensations of fear, which can be thrilling, but they’re in control. They know that the event will end and that no one will really get hurt!
When Fear Gets Out of Hand
Lamont’s fear of heights, which causes him to experience the body’s normal fight-or-flight reaction in a situation that’s not actually dangerous, is considered a phobia. “A phobia is a persistent fear of a specific object or situation that’s strong and irrational,” says Fassler. Lamont knows he’s not going to be swept up and out the window of a building, but that knowledge doesn’t keep his mind from telling his body that danger is lurking.
James A., 15, of Sherman Oaks, Calif., also suffers from a phobia: arachnophobia, or fear of spiders. “Even if I see a picture of a spider in a book, I tense up, my heart starts beating fast, and I feel like I have to get away,” James says. “I know a photo of a bug can’t hurt me, but I still get freaked out. I also imagine spiders in my clothes sometimes.” That is another common characteristic of phobias: The sufferer spends a lot of time thinking about the fear and tries hard to avoid it.
Why do these otherwise calm, cool, and collected teens get so bent out of shape by things that are usually harmless? Phobias are often caused by something scary that happened earlier in a person’s life. “When I was really little, I saw [the movie] Arachnophobia, and that might have been the start,” James says. Experts claim that it’s also common to develop a phobia after observing a parent’s fear.
About one in 10 adolescents suffers from a phobia that’s strong enough to affect his or her daily life. “Phobias can be treated,” says Jerilyn Ross, director of the Ross Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders. “The biggest problem is that teenagers don’t ask for help.” If a phobia is preventing you from going to school, hanging out with friends, or doing other daily activities, it’s time to seek help. Treatment often includes a combination of relaxation exercises and gradual exposure to the object of your phobia with the help of a psychiatrist or psychologist. The goal: getting your brain to gradually realize that something that seems scary actually isn’t.
Some Lingering Worries
Doctors consider phobias a type of anxiety disorder. Anxiety refers to a feeling of nervousness, worry, or stress about something that’s happening in the future. “Some anxiety in life is normal,” says Ross. It can even be beneficial. If you feel anxious about a final exam, for example, you might study extra hard and ace it. But if anxiety “gets too intense or you have obsessive worries, talk to an adult,” Ross says.
CH2 Ask You!
Percentage of 9th- through 12th-grade students who told CH2 they were “very afraid” of:
Speaking in public 37%
Flying in a plane 16%
Enclosed spaces 14%
Name That Phobia
Can you match each phobia with its definition? (We hope you don’t develop hellenologophobia, a fear of complex scientific terminology, before getting to the bottom of the list!) Your teacher will provide the answers.
1. arachnophobia — A. fear of bathing
2. agoraphobia — B. fear of running water, especially rivers
3. potamophobia — C. fear of spiders
4. taphephobia — D. fear of clocks
5. gephyrophobia — E. fear of vegetables
6. claustrophobia — F. fear of beards
7. lachanophobia — G. fear of crossing bridges
8. chronomentrophobia — H. fear of enclosure
9. ablutophobia — I. fear of being buried alive
10. pogonophobia — J. fear of open spaces
1. C, 2. J, 3. B, 4. I, 5. G, 6. H, 7. C, 8. D, 9. A, 10. F
Many celebrities suffer from phobias. Here’s a sampling.
Johnny Depp and Scan “Diddy” Combs are freaked out by clowns. They have clourophobia.
Many stars suffer from aerophobia (also called aviophobia), a fear of flying. : and Billy Bob Thornton all panic when they board a plane.
Soccer star David Beckham is ataxophobic, a person who fears disorder. Pssst! We hear he makes sure that each shirt in his closet is hung according to color and that each can of soda in the fridge is perfectly lined up.
Tyra Banks has a fear of dolphins but agreed to conquer her fear by swimming with them for her TV talk show.