Phobias - can they be helped?

Click here to have a read of journalist Andre Chumko’s article I was interviewed for, on phobias on Text is replicated below in case of the link changing.

The things we fear: Meet the people afraid of tomato seeds, moths, and exploding microwaves

Heather Murphy can't stand the thought of, the sound of the word, or the sight of sweetcorn. She's never eaten it. She gets goose bumps and cold sweats, and becomes physically sick by "anything at all" to do with it.

When new flatmates moved into her home in October she had to get her boyfriend to tell them they couldn't have sweetcorn in the house.

"I had to tell him fairly early on in the relationship as well. He's got a huge Māori family and everyone loves it, so the first time I was going over to meet his mum and dad he was like: 'Listen, that can't be on the menu'," Murphy says.

Murphy is one of untold numbers of Kiwis living with phobias ranging from debilitating, life interrupting fears, to wincing at the sight of a spider.

Anxiety New Zealand's chief executive Sarah Wollard says while phobias may seem funny to those who don't have them, the reality for Kiwis battling deep-rooted fears about things as irrational as animals and technology means their lives can be dramatically affected.

Once in Turkey, Murphy was served a dinner which had a sweetcorn garnish. It was all through the rice, too. Murphy fell backwards off her chair, knocking over a table full of ankhs.

"It's amazing what triggers it but you don't even realise. I just know that they make my skin crawl, I start sweating. It's not completely debilitating but you notice I'm distressed," says Michelle Johnson of her turtle phobia.

"I was screaming and my cousin was like: 'Just take that plate away from her'. Everybody was looking ... It absolutely paralyses me."

Tauranga-based Murphy sometimes feels aggrieved about how others react to her fear. "Nobody ever really gives people any s... for people with phobias of spiders or heights or enclosed spaces, but you tell people you have a fear of [sweetcorn] and they just rip you for s...," she says.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, the problem with phobias is that they can interrupt daily life through the constant worry; it takes effort to try and avoid the thing you fear. And, it can spiral into issues like alcoholism, depression and other phobias.

For Murphy, a simple trip to the supermarket can be debilitating. In the tinned food section she turns away from the corn, with a cold shudder. Her boyfriend has to warn others if they're going out for dinner. People take it more seriously when he explains it, she says.

When she tells people they think it's funny and deliberately make light of it. "And I'm like, 'What part do you not get? You're making me seriously uncomfortable'."

Britain's National Health Service defines phobias - the most common type of anxiety disorder - as overwhelming and debilitating fears of objects, places, situations, feelings or animals. Phobias can be specific (also called simple phobias), or complex.

"We used to do quite a lot of travelling when I was a kid, so whether I've come across something somewhere that wasn't right and that scared me, I honestly don't know," says Johnson.

Simple phobias often develop during childhood, and centre around a particular object, animal, situation or activity. Complex phobias can be more disabling, and usually develop during adulthood, the most common including agoraphobia, the fear of open spaces, and social phobia - feeling anxious in social situations.

For Hawke's Bay's Bonnie Flaws, sweetcorn is nothing compared to tomato seeds. Tomatoes are "the grossest thing on the planet... squidgy, slimy, jellified, revolting, puke-inducing things".

If someone's been cutting tomatoes and there's "guts everywhere", she has to leave otherwise she'll begin dry heaving. She has a similar dislike for peach pits, passionfruit seeds and watermelon seeds. The peach in particular is "quite a revolting stone, covered in slimy flesh, shrivelled, and it looks a bit like a brain".

She doesn't feed her daughter tomatoes because she can't deal with cleaning them up, and if - heaven forbid - she finds one on herself, "I would freak out".

Spain's La Tomatina festival? "I can't even look at pictures of it. That, to me, is like a graphic horror." Intriguingly, once the tomato is cooked, it's no longer a problem.

There's no one cause for phobias, but factors can include specific traumas and incidents, a learned response from a parent or sibling, or a biological disposition. Almost all can be treated and cured.

One treatment is gradual exposure to stimuli - also known as desensitisation. But treating complex phobias may involve psychotherapy, counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy.

Registered psychologist Nadine Isler says phobias can be "very, very distressing".

"The biggest misconception is that the best way to deal with a phobia is avoiding the thing that you're afraid of," Isler says. "A lot of people will say, 'I've got this phobia, but it's okay, it's well managed, because I just avoid dogs' ... Of course, it's the opposite."

Palmerston North's Michelle Johnson has no idea why she's afraid of turtles, tortoises and terrapins. She admits it sounds ridiculous. "Everybody thinks I'm a screaming loon," she says. She recalls an incident at a friend's house, aged five.

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"She had this tortoise, it was called Flash and seriously, that thing used to haunt me around the garden. It was like a race horse, honestly it could move like the wind when I was around. Horrible, horrible thing."

It's the way their heads and jaws move that make her spine tingle the most, Johnson says. "They're quite leathery, they're just ghastly things, I mean how on earth the Victorians could eat turtle soup, I've got no idea."

Fears of animals, primates or lizards isn't unusual. Amy Dawson, a Napier beauty therapist, has a phobia of snakes which often catches her out while innocently watching television. They cause her panic attacks and heart palpitations.

"I'll even research what kind of snakes a country has. I went to Rarotonga recently and they only have sea snakes, and I was very on alert for something like that. I saw something blue and because I never looked at the photo of what they looked like, I said: 'Are sea snakes blue?' But it turns out it was one of their starfish and it was just one leg of it. But I was panicking and swam away," says Dawson.

Her phobia stopped her moving to Australia in her 20s when her friends were crossing the ditch. Even visiting now, Dawson says she gets quite paranoid a serpent will "pop out" at her.

Nightmares are a regular occurrence. In one, she dreamed her son was dropped into a snake pit. A friend who works as a spiritual medium told her that situation may have actually happened in a past life but Dawson can pinpoint her fear to an actual event - when she was in northern Queensland holiday as a child, and she later learned a snake had been underneath the couch cushions of the home she'd been staying. "It just played on my mind after that, that you never know where they are."

Navigating social media has proved an issue. Scrolling through Facebook, images and videos of people with snakes "[wrapped] around their necks" at tourist attractions are de rigueur. She's considering undergoing hypnotherapy, as while she no longer wants to relocate to Australia, she does want to go on holidays without having "night terrors that they're going to be crawling in my bed".

Napier's Audrey Walker can relate. Her fear of spiders, especially tarantulas and Huntsman, is so bad that when working in a bank in South Africa years ago she triggered a major alert when staff heard her screaming and thought she was being held up. A black spider was running across the counter.

Her fear plagued her long after moving to New Zealand. Once, Walker jumped from a moving vehicle to avoid a Huntsman in the back seat.

Fortunately the car was slow moving and she only suffered a few cuts and bruises, but Walker reckons she would have leapt at 100kph. "Because when you're faced with the object of your fear, you don't think rationally at all."

Greg Watson is a property manager in Palmerston North and has a phobia of moths. He's gotten to a point where he can bear to be in a room with a moth without running out anymore.

Property manager Greg Watson's worst fear is out of control moths, or having one land on him and being unable to get it off. From his late teens through to his mid-thirties, if he was sitting in a room and a moth came in, he'd be "extremely tuned into" its whereabouts.

Often he'd run, without even being sure where it was. He would sweat, and shake, and his heart beat faster.

His wife leaves the front porch light off if he's out, knowing it'll attract moths and that Watson will be able to see them if it's on. Following years of self-exposure therapy, Watson no longer has the urge to run from rooms but if a moth with burnt wings started flying near him he'd still "jump back".

He believes the root cause may be from childhood, when a group of moths flew into him. When he had children, he didn't want to tell them in case it affected them, too. "They know I don't like moths - that's the story we told them."

In one particularly traumatic incident, "one of the big fat ones" flew directly into Watson's neck and started flapping around. It took him about 20 minutes to get his heart rate down and to stop shaking.

"For me, slipping and falling off a building or a hill, the fall itself would be my absolute worst nightmare come to life," says Georgia Hart.

It's not all bugs and food. Casey Thomas runs for cover whenever she turns the microwave on, because she fears it will explode in her face. The "sudden" noise of the machine is the trigger.

And media solutions advisor Georgia Hart is scared of falling, after being thrown off a horse and nearly trampled as a teen. She tried to go bungy jumping to conquer her phobia, but it ended up making it worse after an instructor pushed her off the ledge as she was taking too long.

Waipukurau's Michelle Mexted has phobias of the dark, heights, confined spaces and the dentist. Living rurally is a challenge, as there's no street lights. If she has to leave the house after dusk, it'll be brief and she "immediately" runs back inside.

If she's staying elsewhere and forgets her night light - which she sleeps with - she has to curl up under a window with the curtain open, or focus on a light, otherwise she can't doze off. "I haven't sought treatment because I feel like I'm strange."

Isler says it's important for people to feel the opposite - that they can talk to someone. She believes the message is getting through that mental health issues - including anxiety over phobias - aren't something to "suck up" and "be fine". She encourages people to be as open as they feel comfortable.

"Often it's the person themselves that thinks they'll get a really bad reception if they tell people about their anxiety, and then often, when they do - when they go and tell a manager or colleague or friend - they're really surprised and they get a much better reception."