Don't panic - it's only a phobia

Irrational fears can be conquered.
FOR MOST of us, nothing could be more pleasurable than whiling away a few hours in a favoured restaurant enjoying good food and wine in the company of friends.

But to Karen Tate, the experience would be akin to the terrors most would feel caught in a war zone, or face to face with a killer. Her pulse races, her heart beats faster, and her breathing becomes laboured. "Most people like going out, but I avoid eating out like the plague because I just have panic attacks. I just have to get out of there," said Karen, a 28-year-old Mancunian.

Karen is one of a growing number of phobics suffering from irrational fears that until now have gone unrecorded. Thirty years ago there were only a handful of officially recognised terrors like these, but the latest register of phobias compiled by US university researchers now lists 314, encompassing almost anything from fears of body odour and baldness to those who are frightened by vicars or worms.

Many of the new phobias relate to modern life. Technology in particular has brought a rash of new fears, including a dread of missiles, meteorites, and computers, plus neophobia - a fear of new things. In Britain, one of the fastest growing problems is travel fear, particularly in London where crowded trains and tubes help cause panic attacks.

Increasingly stressful lives, more awareness of the problems and treatments, and a more sympathetic climate to those with phobias are among the reasons for the increasing numbers of people seeking help from psychologists and counsellors for conditions which can be successfully treated. Nicky Lidbetter, assistant director of the National Phobics Society, says: "People are under stress more. We see a lot more younger people than we used to and don't really know why."

"People are seeking attention more and are referred more often," says psychologist Dr Stephen Palmer, director of the Centre for Stress Management in London. "We see a lot of travel phobia among people here. If you are travelling into London, it's a warm day, you have to rush to work, there is a train delay, it's cramped on the tube, you make a dash for the office, get into a cramped lift and suddenly at that moment you are aware your heart is beating faster. You focus on the heart so it beats even faster, your breath faster, your hearts pounds, and you are having your first panic attack. Before you know where you are, you have a phobia about lifts and closed places."

Dr John Fraise, consultant clinical psychologist with the Wakefield and Pontefract Community Health Trust, says that giving names to phobias and the knowledge that treatments are available can help sufferers.

To Peter Slipp, a 27 year old from Llannelli, just one glimpse of an earwig is enough to start a panic attack. The creepy crawly inspires shallow breathing and a racing heart. "I'm just terrified of them. I can't do the gardening anymore and I check out all the rooms at night to make sure there are none about. If there are I have a house-full of sprays to get them," he says.

Phobias can wax and wane. There have been reports that the incidence of galephobia - fear of sharks - increased when the Jaws films were being shown.

The technical names of phobias can also be confusing. Cymophobia, fear of waves, for instance, should not be confused with, cynophobia, fear of dogs. Likewise, ergophobia, fears of work, out not to be mixed up with erotophobia, fears of sexual feelings. And on no account should parasitophobia, fear of parasites, be confused with politicophobia, fear of politicians.

Check your phobias

Agyrophobia - fear of crossing the road. Anthophobia - fear of flowers and plants. Bromidrosiphobia - fear of unpleasant body odours. Chinophobia - fear of snow. Coitophobia - fear of sexual intercourse. Cynophobia - fear of dogs. Ecclesiophobia - fears of churches. Hierophobia - fear of priests. Homichlophobia - fear of fog. Isopterphobia - fear of termites. Mythophobia - fears of telling lies. Ombrophobia - fear of rain. Pogonphobia - fear of beards. Triskaidekaphobia - fear of the number 13.