Controlled by a phobia
When microbiology PhD student Mei Siyu goes to the supermarket, she frequently has to take a detour. The reason: she’s terrified of birds. Especially the sight of chickens makes her hair stand on end. ‘I’m scared of their eyes and beak. If I look into their eyes, it feels like they will suck out your soul’, she says.
She tries to stay away from birds, but that’s not always feasible. Her fear runs so deep that she can’t even watch them in videos.
Many people are scared of something, but in people with phobias, this fear becomes extreme. Approximately 523,400 people in the Netherlands suffer from a specific phobia, according to a 2016 study by health institute RIVM. They have developed an irrational, debilitating fear of an object, place, situation, or feeling. Most common phobia variants are related to fear of open or enclosed spaces, fear of heights, and animals. But there are also less common phobias.
Saskia Puusaar, an international relations and international organization student, has emetophobia: a fear of vomiting. She herself hasn’t had to vomit in ten years, but with drinking being a big part of students’ social life, it’s not always easy to avoid coming across other people who’ve had too many drinks and start throwing up. ‘It happens a lot’, she says. ‘I see people throwing up on the street and I have to turn around. And I can’t go into pubs when it happens in front of it.’
It feels like the birds will suck out your soul
Simply avoiding the Peperstraat at night is not the answer, she says. ‘Throwing up is a big part of prank culture, too. When I watch a video, for example, there is no way for me to know that it’s coming. When I see or hear someone throwing up, I freak out and get panic attack-like symptoms. My heart starts to pound, I feel like I can’t breathe, and my hands turn cold.’
According to UG researcher Ans Hovenkamp-Hermelink, who specialises in anxiety disorders, phobias can be triggered by pretty much anything, ranging from medical problems to genetic factors. ‘Often it’s caused by trauma, but it’s hard to pinpoint. In most cases, it’s a combination of different factors’, she says.
Student Anna – not her real name – is terrified of having blood drawn at the doctor. She believes that her fear is the result of a traumatic experience she had as a child when they couldn’t find her veins. ‘I was screaming and they told me my mum would have to leave if I continued to scream. Of course, that only made it worse’, she recalls.
In her home country it’s common to have a blood test done at least once a year. But Anna, who suffers from stomach aches, has had to get her blood checked even more often. ‘I’ve had so many blood tests that were useless. I’m not scared of needles, it’s the feeling of blood running out of my veins. It’s something I can’t control’, Anna says. ‘I’m scared to embarrass myself by fainting.’
My heart starts to pound and my hands turn cold
The anxiety starts as soon as Anna sets foot in the hospital. ‘It feels like it’s 200 degrees. When I’m in the queue waiting, I’m hyper alert. When it’s my turn and I realise the person who’s drawing the blood is still being trained, I go back to the end of the queue again to escape them.’
When it’s finally done, she’s extremely tired and nauseous. ‘I can’t even see my blood afterwards, because it reminds me of the situation. It’s disgusting.’
Saskia has had to live with her phobia ever since she can remember. ‘I’m still not sure what triggered it. In my teens I felt like I was controlled by it and I was really scared that it might be an eating disorder.’ She believes it’s connected to her hypochondria. ‘As soon as I feel nauseous, I think that something is wrong with my body.’
Mei Siyu thinks that her fear stems from a story her mum told her when she was little. ‘I’m from a small village in China. When I was in primary school, my mum told me that her feet were cut by the beak of a chicken, that’s why I’m so scared of them.’
Knowing where their fear comes from doesn’t help the students, though. Mei often has to deal with comments from others. ‘They ask me how I can be afraid of such a weak thing’, she says. ‘But I don’t think birds are weak. I know that it shouldn’t influence my life, but the sight of birds just puts me into shock. I cannot just walk by them and if they fly up, it makes me feel all weak inside.’
Anna prefers not to talk about her fears to others. ‘People have told me that what I feel is stupid’, she explains. ‘One time a nurse told me I should know how to manage my stress, after I told her I had studied psychology. There was so much tension that I started to cry afterwards.’
And Saskia is left feeling like an outsider at times. ‘I would also wish there were more trigger warnings.’ When she watches videos she suspects will show images that may trigger her phobia, she watches them through her fingers. ’Most people don’t think about this as a phobia, so they often treat it as a joke’, she says.
People often treat my phobia as a joke
Still, avoiding fear is not the best way of handling it, says Hovenkamp-Hermelink. ‘Exposure therapy may be helpful in some cases. This means confronting your fear under controlled conditions, with a therapist nearby.’
Because the problem won’t go away on its own. ‘Seek help if your life is controlled by your anxiety’, says Hovenkamp-Hermelink. ‘Don’t think that your fear is just a bother. The longer you wait, the more severe your symptoms may become and the more difficult it is to go back to a life without a phobia.’
But for the students involved that is easier said than done. Saskia visited a psychologist in the past, but that didn’t really help her. Now she prefers to face her fear alone. ‘It makes me feel uncomfortable to talk about it.’ But it depends on her day-to-day mood whether she can handle it. ‘I’m quite an anxious person in nature and it has happened in the past that I had a full-on panic attack that was triggered by my phobia.’
Anna would like to visit a psychologist too, but says that she can’t afford therapy at the moment. ‘Once I have a stable job, I will go to a psychologist. Until then I just have to survive.’ In her daily life, her phobia doesn’t bother her, she says. It’s only when she has to go for a blood test that things go wrong. ‘I tell myself that it’ll be fine. But in the past five years, I only managed to remain calm once.’
For Mei, it would be difficult to make friends with people who like birds. ‘To some people birds are cute, but I think they’re scary,’ she says. Her phobia also keeps her from enjoying village life and visiting her elderly relatives who live in rural China. ‘There are so many chickens there. My mum thinks I’m not a family person, but I love my family. I just don’t want to go to the village and be surrounded by birds.’