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Statistics from the Beyond Blue organisation show that around eleven percent of Australians suffer from specific phobias. A greater number have certain aversions and even more experience situational anxiety.
While we may not understand the reason for, or the depth of these fears, to the person experiencing them, they are very real and often quite debilitating.
In my own personal experience I have a fear of heights and an aversion to bees, snakes and public speaking. I also panic if my nose and mouth are covered and my breathing restricted. I know where these conditions stemmed from and they do not affect my life enough that I feel the need to seek any kind of professional help.
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There are, however, those whose lives are affected quite dramatically by their phobias, and we need to know how to respond if we should encounter this kind of situation.
I remember the first time I met someone who suffered an extreme phobia. I was in my twenties and I witnessed a woman having an almost hysterical reaction to a cat. I sat there stunned while other people in the room laughed at her and teased her by calling the cat over. I felt sorry for the woman, even though I didn't really understand her behaviour.
In more recent years I worked with a young volunteer who has an extreme phobia of balloons, so whenever we held a celebration we would stick cut-out pictures of balloons on the walls. We may not have understood how she felt, but we respected those feelings.
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Closer to home, I have a family member who has developed an aversion to clowns or any character in a costume or mask.
There isn't anyone among us that has the right to scoff at or tease another person because of their fears or phobias. If it is someone close to us and we’re concerned that their lives are being negatively affected, there are ways we can support them.
We can listen and reassure, offering suggestions for coping strategies or avenues for professional help. We can set an example to them by demonstrating that we acknowledge their fears, but do not share them. If we mirror their feelings or behaviours we are only reinforcing them.
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Most importantly, if we belittle or dismiss the fears of those we care about or deliberately put them in a stressful situation, rather than help them we can exacerbate their fear and mental anguish and could cause long-term damage. The key word to remember when dealing with someone who suffers phobias is - respect.