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Fear factor: One person's pleasure is another's phobia

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Some days, people who suffer from chionophobia, the fear of snow, are better off staying home. (Photo by Salomon Ahren)

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Jerilyn Ross is the director and CEO of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. (Photo courtesy of ADAA)

People who suffer from sesquipedaliophobia, the fear of long words, should stop reading this article. Logophobiacs, people who are afraid of words, wouldn’t be reading this anyway.

Never before, it seems, have there been so many things to fear. Certain phobias, like homophobia and xenophobia, are well-known. Others are more esoteric. They include the serious--fear of darkness (achluophobia) and fear of dying (thantophobia)--as well as the almost-comical--fear of snow (chionophobia), fear of one’s in-laws (soceraphobia) and fear of opening one’s eyes (optophobia). Basically, if you can name it, there’s almost certainly someone who’s phobic about it.

A phobia is defined as a strong and persistent dislike or irrational fear of a thing or situation that leads a person to avoid the feared situation despite knowing that it is not actually dangerous.

For those who don’t suffer from technophobia (fear of technology), the Internet has an abundance of information on the subject. The guru behind Phobialist.com, for example, has compiled 533 names of phobias starting with ablutophobia (fear of washing or bathing) and running to zoophobia (fear of animals). In between, curious phobophiles can find phobias for all occasions: kakorrhaphiophobia (fear of ridicule), anybody? How about octophobia (fear of the figure 8)?

People can also fear entire nations. Among other things, Panphobia.com lists fear of the English, Germans, French, Russians, Japanese, Chinese and, of course, Americans (gringophobia).

How authentic are these fears? Are some people really afraid of sitting (thaasophobia) or telephones (telephonophobia)? Yes, said Howard Liebgold, a 75-year-old M.D. who teaches classes and workshops for phobics in the Bay Area. “Everything can lead to a phobia," he said. "After 22 years of teaching, nothing surprises me anymore. There are people who are scared of three-legged stools.”

Liebgold, who offers his Phobease program to adults and children as young as 6, believes he can cure anybody of any phobia. Using cognitive behavioral therapy, Liebgold first tries to identify the sources of a person’s fear. He then works toward demystifying the object of the phobia and gradually desensitizing the patient. The work goes through stages. For example, Liebgold will ask a person who fears dogs to start by spending 15 minutes writing the word “dog.” The activities become increasingly less abstract--from enunciating the word “dog,” to handling a photo, to caressing a stuffed animal--until the patient is ready to face the ultimate challenge: confronting a live canine in person.

By the end of 20 hours of work, Liebgold said almost all of his patients “have shown significant improvement, no matter what the phobia.” Success for some patients may take longer.

Liebgold goes by the nickname Dr. Fear, which he said stands for False Exaggerations Appearing Real. “We tell our students: all phobias are exaggerations of normal fears,” he said.

When it comes to phobias, Liebgold can relate to his patients through his own firsthand experience. For years, he was afraid to travel (hodophobia), but he overcame his fear after intensive therapy similar to what he now does with his patients. He said he has since visited more than 55 countries and taken more than 50 cruises. One of his patients who used to be afraid of flying (aviophobia), is now a professional pilot, Liebgold said.

Still, not everybody shares Liegbold’s optimism about the prospects of healing phobias. Jerilyn Ross, president and CEO of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, believes that “very large success rates are possible,” she said. “But I’d never use the word ‘cure.’ To say that sets people up for failure.”

Ross, a psychotherapist and author who is also the director of an anxiety center in Washington, D.C., thinks that the countless terms for phobias have “no medical validity.” All phobias fit into one of three categories, she said: specific phobias, such as the fear of insects or objects; agoraphobia, which causes people to avoid open spaces; and social phobias, such as the fear of public speaking. “You can take any Greek word and put it in front of “phobia,' " she said, "But we don’t use these names in the medical field.”

Phobophiles don’t seem to care. Fredd Culbertson, who owns a restaurant about 15 miles north of San Francisco, turned his passion for collecting interesting words into Phobialist.com. “It wasn’t so much the phobias, it was more the names,” Culbertson said of his site’s origins. “I look stuff up all the time.”

He had been collecting the names of phobias, and in 1995, when he had gathered about 100 varieties, he took the list online. The site gets about two and a half million hits a month, he said, and he has sold about 1,000 of his $12 Phobia List Posters.

The goal at Phobiaq.com is more focused on providing useful data, said Vacheh Joakim, who created the site about two and a half years ago. “I do hope to develop it further to include information that can be more helpful to visitors, and perhaps create a community where people interested in and afflicted by phobias can exchange ideas and information.”

Many sites also list fictional and jocular phobias. Anoraknophobics, for example, would panic at the sight of spiders wearing anoraks. An arachibutyrophobic would do anything to avoid having peanut butter sticking to the roof of her mouth.

A real killer for people with sesquipedaliophobia--the fear of long words--is hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, which is just another, exaggeratedly long name for the same thing. After seeing such monstrosities, it’s possible to imagine that some people may be spending too much time pondering phobias. These people, obviously, don’t suffer from phobophobia, the fear of fear.

E-mail: sra2119@columbia.edu