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Fear factor

Scared of getting into an elevator or entering a dark room? Stay calm to tackle your phobias, advises Tavishi Paitandy Rastogi.

health and fitness Updated: Nov 08, 2008 19:09 IST
Tavishi Paitandy Rastogi
Tavishi Paitandy Rastogi
Hindustan Times

Media professional Deepika Mishra has nightmares every time she has to step out of her house. The 29-year-old stays on the ninth floor and her biggest dilemma every day is how to get to the ground floor and back home without breaking into a sweat.

Taking the stairs all the time is an ordeal and she is petrified of taking the elevator. She is claustrophobic, so every time she walks into a lift, she starts getting palpitations and wants to get off immediately.

“I don’t know how I handle this everyday. I didn’t have much of a choice so I had to pick a flat on the ninth floor. But just the thought of getting into the lift every time I need to step in or out is a killer,” she says.

Experts say most of us suffer from some or the other fear. Fear of height, water, darkness or illness are common. “It could be something as small as an insect or as big as death. Small common things can become fears and phobias,” says psychologist Dr Jitendra Nagpal.

Often, the fears that torment us are tolerable if they do not disrupt daily life in a big way. But phobias often severely hamper the day-to-day lives of many of us.

Mishra is lucky she can at least bring herself to enter an elevator. Some people have such a severe case of claustrophobia that they’d rather climb 10 floors every day than suffer unbearably for few seconds inside the lift. Others suffer from an acute fear of flying that makes it impossible for them to travel long distances.

Of all fears, “claustrophobia or the fear of closed places and the fear of darkness is the most common,” says Dr Nagpal.

So what exactly is claustrophobia? And why does it occur at all?

“A phobia is a form of anxiety disorder that leads to an irrational fear of a certain situation or object. In general terms claustrophobia can be described as a recurrent, compelling fear of closed places and the desire to avoid them at all costs. It is triggered by a certain situation and can be termed as a situational phobia,” explains Nagpal.

Experts say phobias lead to complete emotional paralysis. “Claustrophobic people start feeling choked and breathless in closed areas. Be it elevators or small office cubicles, they tend to look for an opening that can serve as their source of ventilation. A small room or even crowded areas can become uncomfortable for them,” says psychologist Manisha Chandra.

Unpleasant memories
According to experts, claustrophobia can develop from either a traumatic childhood experience (such as being trapped in a tight space during a childhood game), or from another unpleasant experience involving confined spaces (such as being stuck in an elevator) later in life. “When an individual experiences such an event, it can often trigger a panic attack. This response is then programmed in the brain, establishing an association between being in a tight space and feeling anxious or out-of-control. As a result, the person often develops claustrophobia,” explains Chandra.

Fear of the dark
Fear of darkness or achluophobia is another phobia that experts believe seriously affects individuals and their daily lives.

Corporate executive Arvind Arora agrees entirely. Arora hates taking roads that are not lit properly. So much so that he does not even venture into his basement parking if the lights are dim.

“It’s a big problem. I don’t just need to handle fear. It’s quite embarrassing that at the age of 35, I have to confess that I am scared of the dark. I really get embarrassed when my three year old son looks at me queerly every time I throw a tantrum about the dark,” he confesses.

“The reasons for this fear too are more or less the same,” says Nagpal. “But darkness is also associated with some negative feelings. For a lot of people, it symbolises helplessness, loneliness and a feeling of rejection,” he adds.
Specialists explain that the origin of the fear could be anything. “Something as harmless as telling a child that he / she would be locked up in a dark room if he / she misbehaved could manifest into a deep fear. Similarly, if a child is made to believe that there is nothing to be scared of, it could manifest in a brash attitude. That’s where a balance needs to be maintained,” says Nagpal.

Anxious mind
However, past events are not the only trigger. A lot of people have completely unexplained fears. Fear stems out of a panic reaction which in turn is a result of an anxious mind. Anxiety, hyperactivity and a high level of adrenaline rush can all be reasons behind irrational fears.

Calming effect
So is there a cure?
While you can get medicines to relive the stress and anxiety that is the result of that irrational fear, the only remedy for phobias is behavorial therapy that includes counseling and a systematic desensitisation and gradual exposure to the phobic stimulus, say doctors.

“One needs to clearly understand and diagnose the real reason for the fear and then work towards improving the condition. But more than any other treatment, calming nerves through meditation, relaxation and breathing exercises are the first steps towards healing,” says Nagpal.

First Published: Nov 08, 2008 19:00 IST