In June, Irish people living in Australia regaled Claire Byrne with tales of terror from the midst of a plague of mice, and, though separated by a hemisphere, Claire and Ian Robertson, Emeritus Professor of Psychology in Trinity College, both still shuddered and twitched listening back to reports of this tsunami of brown fur. So does this mean they’re both musophobic or would anyone feel a bit clammy listening back to the accounts from Australia? Ian explained what defines a phobia:
"A phobia is where you have intense anxiety associated to a particular stimulus, a particular situation, a particular category of object in the world [...] disproportionate to the threat of the actual object [...] A phobia has to interfere with your life; so, it has to stop you doing things that you would normally do."
A general fear or dislike of rodents makes sense:
"We have diseases spread by rodents... We have [...] a certain rational dislike of having creepy crawlies in our house because it's associated with disease.
It appears the big distinction is rational versus irrational fear and the degree to which it impacts on your everyday life: while mice and cockroaches can spread disease, it’s fairly unlikely you’ll be eaten by a shark or chased by a killer clown.
"There’s virtually nothing in the world that can’t potentially become a phobia."
Super. So while it seems some phobias are innate for our survival, can we be conditioned into phobic behaviour?
"Sometimes when people are going through a stressful experience, for instance, they may be anxious about something else, and then some event or object is linked in their mind to an intense feeling of anxiety or panic that may be linked to some underlying other worries."
Ian gave the example here of locking himself into a cupboard as a young child which manifested as a mild case of claustrophobia in adulthood. But what about the child traumatised by Jaws or The Birds? These are referred to as 'vicarious phobias’ and while you may have grown up nowhere near Amity Island, the fear you experienced watching was real because children don’t have the ability to rationalise what they're seeing.The big question, though, is can you treat phobias?
"Phobias are one of the most treatable psychological problems and the best treatment is exposure."
I’m not sure if I like the sound of this:
"Supposing someone's frightened of spiders; what you do is you start off with, well, let's just look at a drawing of a spider, or get you to draw a spider; some very distant stimulus."
Then you up the ante to photo, to toy to realistic model before next thing you know you’re eyeball to eyeball with your arachnid nemesis.
"It's called ‘extinction’ [...] The person gets used to seeing the stimuli and that gradually breaks the link between the anxiety response and the stimulus."
That’s only step one, though:
"People have to have the confidence that they can do this and one of the great obstacles to that is to believe that your anxiety or your phobia is caused by something outside of your control [...] then you won't believe that you can do what's necessary to overcome it."