Why Am I Such a Wimp?

(Illustration: Erik Mace for Yahoo Health)

I consider myself a pretty rational human being.

I stay (relatively) calm in stressful situations. Most people would call me logical and level-headed.

So why is it that I come UNGLUED AF when a butterfly comes anywhere close to me?

It’s not just butterflies — I’m terrified of pretty much anything with more than four legs (or no legs, ‘sup worms and snails). But I don’t just draw the line there. Heights and I are not friends: You’ll find me standing very safely away from the edge of any balconies or cliffs. And I’m that grown adult covering her eyes and ears and whispering “la la la” when the latest Paranormal Activity trailer comes on in the movie theater.

I know I’m not the only one, though. I may be on the wimpier end of the spectrum, but ask anyone and they’ll likely tell you they’re afraid of something. Maybe it’s mice. Maybe it’s blood, or being stuck with a needle. Maybe it’s being in a small, enclosed space. Maybe it’s clowns.

“Fear is universal,” fear expert and sociologist Margee Kerr, PhD, tells me. Kerr is the author of SCREAM: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear and also works with ScareHouse, a Pittsburgh-based haunted house, collecting and analyzing data on what effectively scares the public. So, it’s safe to say Kerr knows a thing or two about fear.

Even though everyone is afraid at least sometimes, “what does vary is the sensitivity to perceived threatening stimuli,” Kerr says. “For some, just the thought of a spider will send their body into a state of stress, if not full flight or flight (otherwise known as our threat response).”

How sensitive someone is to a (perceived) threat involves many factors, a big one being his or her personality. “Those who are more resilient tend to handle stress and fear better,” Kerr explains. But genes factor in, too: They influence our stress response at a physiological level, which can then impact how our “thinking” brain makes sense of a threat, she adds.

“For example, if a person has a very intense physiological response to seeing a spider — his heart starts racing, his hands sweat — he will ascribe more importance, more fear, to that stimuli than someone who has a more subtle or no physiological response at all,” Kerr says.

Personal history also plays a huge role. It usually only takes one bad experience to solidify a “fearful” relationship in the brain, a phenomenon called fear conditioning. “We are the product of thousands of years of evolution that fine-tuned our threat response to ensure that we would recognize, respond, remember, and avoid anything that could harm us,” Kerr explains. 

But we don’t have to experience something negative to know to be afraid of it. We can also learn fear from others — which Kerr says is a good thing. “Can you imagine if we had to experience every harmful thing ourselves to learn to fear it? We’d have died out long ago,” she says. “So scary stories around the campfire did a lot more than just entertain — they taught people what to look out for, avoid, and fear in the great unknown.” 

That means we can read a book or watch a movie and find ourselves with a whole set of new fears the next day. “When we watch or imagine something happening to someone else, we understand and make sense of it by experiencing [it], though to a lesser degree, ourselves,” Kerr says. It’s the same reason why we cry when we watch a sad movie, or scream or jump when we watch a thriller: “The same parts of the brain activated in the victim of the story are activated in the listener.”

But what is it about my specific phobias of that makes them so unbearable? I decided to find out by seeking out experts for each.

As I alluded to before, horror and I do not mix. Ryan Murphy, I’m sure your show is great but I’ll never be a fan of American Horror Story. You won’t catch me on one of those “haunted hotel” tours. And I don’t *do* horror movies — I get scenes from them stuck in my head, and they don’t even have to be that scary. That part in Signs when the video camera catches the alien walking across the path? Scared the cr*p out of me. And that scene from The Sixth Sense when the ghost hidden under the bed grabs Haley Joel Osment’s legs? Couldn’t get it out of my head for weeks. (And yes, I realize neither of these movies are even considered true horror.)

Kerr has a simple reason for my fear: “When we don’t know what to expect, or when something startles us, we feel scared,” she says. “Our body and brain function with the aid of sophisticated and complex systems of prediction. When those predictions are violated, we feel uncertain and unsafe.”

Yes, I know what I see in movies is not reality. And I understand that some people find horror fun, instead of absolutely terrifying. But what makes me so different from these thrill-seekers?

It’s as simple as a matter of taste, just like some people have a favorite color or style of music, Kerr says. “Those who get a bigger boost from dopamine may like thrilling things more than others, while those who have little to no response may not experience any ‘fun’ in safe thrills and chills,” she says. “It’s similar in some ways to those who like hot/spicy foods — it still burns their mouth, but they like the physical response.”

Sure, there are some bugs we should reasonably fear. Scorpion stings and spider bites can be dangerous — even deadly. But what is with my universal fear/hatred of all things creepy and crawly? To me, ladybugs are just gross beetles that happen to be red and have spots, and butterflies are just stick-like insects with unsettlingly long legs that happen to have colorful wings attached to them. You get the gist.

While my fear may be a bit, er, extreme, there are two evolutionary reasons for why humans have a heightened awareness of insects: “Either it was something that could bite, sting, or harm us, or it was something that might make a good snack,” explains Jeff Lockwood, PhD, an entomologist, professor of natural sciences and humanities at the University of Wyoming, and author of The Infested Mind: Why Humans Fear, Loathe, and Love Insects and Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War.

Fast-forward to the most recent 500 years of civilization, which ushered in a greater emphasis on hygiene and an overall population shift from rural to urban environments, and you have the explanation for why humans now have a general disdain for bugs. “As we became more and more urban, the number of insects in our lives that were positive has gone down dramatically,” Lockwood explains. “If you live in the city, there are cockroaches, flies, and bedbugs — not a whole lot of good news.”

Plus, “if you think about films and pop culture, the social cultural messages about insects are bad,” Lockwood adds. “Even the insects that are supposed to be good — the pollinators — you’re worried about.” No wonder we as a society have some major bug phobia.

But the reason a person may fear a grasshopper may not be the same as why a person may fear an ant. I know this to be true: I universally fear all bugs, but not for the same reasons. Here’s what makes certain kinds of creepy crawlies unsettling in their own way:

  • “You don’t know where they’re going, and they break into our personal space,” Lockwood explains. Their flapping wings don’t help anything, either. And then there’s the sense that they have the capacity to invade — not just our space, but our bodies. “You may be afraid they’ll get in your ear, get in your hair, get in your clothes, get in your body,” he explains.
  • “While a lion evokes fear, no one is disgusted by a lion. But insects manage to tap into fear and disgust,” Lockwood says. Think about it: When you step on an insect, especially a big one like a cockroach, cicada, or grasshopper, it “exudes stuff, and it’s slippery and slimy, sticky and gooey,” he says. And with cockroaches in particular, there’s that weird smell after one goes splat: Unlike humans, who excrete nitrogenous waste via urine, cockroaches store nitrogenous waste in their bodies. They have “this big, fatty, gooey, slippery fat body, and it’s filled with uric acid crystals,” Lockwood says, “so when you step on it, it smells like a urinal because you’re releasing nitrogenous waste.”
  • “Most spiders aren’t going to bite, but some spiders bite,” Lockwood explains. The fear of potential harm is real.
  • “If insects just evolved a little bit further so they weren’t identifiable as fellow animals, we might be more OK with [them],” Lockwood laments. After all, “if there was this big amoeba crawling on the ground, but it’s just a blob,” we wouldn’t be as afraid of that, would we? It’s insects’ alien features that tap into our aversions: “It’s that sense of ‘otherness’ — but not quite ‘other’ enough. We know they’re animals and they’re moving, but they look alien, and they have this sense of will and intentionality,” Lockwood says. “And we, in general, tend to have a kind of xenophobia — a fear of the ‘other’ or the unknown — and no mammal or vertebrate comes close to being as freaky as insects.”
  • “There’s this sense of being overwhelmed by their numbers — there’s a loss of control,” Lockwood says. “When there’s lots of something around you, you can’t squash them all, they’re getting everywhere.” It’s also the same concept behind fear of insects like moths: “You can’t control them; you don’t know where they’re going, or what they’re going to do,” he explains, “and those are all great ways to generate anxiety.”

Roller coaster to most people = fun and exciting. Roller coaster to me = a giant death trap made of metal.

Hot air balloon ride to most people = romantic. Hot air balloon ride to me = why am I trapped in this tiny basket thousands of feet in the air and what happens if the balloon suddenly malfunctions?

But here’s the thing: I’ve never actually experienced a negative effect from heights. I’ve never broken a bone from falling off a high surface, or been pushed off a diving board in a cruel prank causing me to nearly drown, or anything to that effect. So what’s up with my wimpishness?

(Illustration: Erik Mace for Yahoo Health)

Psychologist Karen Rowa, PhD, an expert in fear of heights, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at McMaster University, and co-author of Overcoming Fear of Heights: How to Conquer Acrophobia and Live a Life Without Limits, explains that it’s likely two-pronged. My evolutionary instinct is kicking in, alerting me to the potential dangers of being up high. And then it’s also possible that I’ve been conditioned in some way to be extra-nervous around heights — “maybe you heard about something bad that happened to someone else, or you had an anxious parent or caregiver who always told you to back away from the edge,” Rowa explains to me. “That could be enough to get somebody to be a little more likely to be afraid of heights, because of that message of ‘You’re not safe’ or ‘Something bad could happen.’”

But just like with haunted houses and horror movies, there are some people who think that heights are fun and that the adrenaline rush that comes with being up high is enjoyable. It all boils down to your interpretation of the scenario, Rowa says. “So someone who’s terrified probably has a certain physical sensation and interprets it as ‘Danger!’ and ‘Something bad could happen!’ but someone who loves heights may have similar physical symptoms, but interpret it as ‘Exciting!’  or ‘It’s awesome, I love this feeling!’” she says.

And then there are the specific physical sensations that occur when you go from high to low, like that dropping feeling you experience when you’re on a roller coaster. For some people afraid of heights, those sensations are very much a part of the fear, Rowa adds.

You just have to decide you want to do it. (I know, mind blown.) 

How: a little something called exposure therapy, a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that many psychologists consider the gold standard for treating phobias. “It returns a sense of controllability and predictability to the client,” explains Bethany Teachman, PhD, who runs the Program for Anxiety, Cognition, and Treatment (PACT) Lab at the University of Virginia. “So instead of feeling like they’re overwhelmed by the situation and can’t possibly cope, the person learns to manage the fear that they’re experiencing.”

Granted, if your fear of fill-in-the-blank is not actually impacting your life in any big way, you may not find it imperative to receive therapy. But if your fear severely affects aspects of your daily routine, limiting your activities and basically ruling your emotions and life, then you might have an actual phobia on your hands — and exposure therapy may be a good option for you. 

The therapy entails creating a “hierarchy” of fear. So, a person may be asked to think about a situation that makes them a little bit afraid, then a situation that makes them modestly afraid, then a situation that is really frightening. “Then slowly, at the person’s own pace and choosing what they’re going to do, they reenter the situation they’ve been avoiding,” Teachman tells me. “What happens when you do that is you choose to tolerate anxiety instead of running, screaming, from it.”

Take fear of heights, for example. Perhaps you’d start exposure therapy by going out on a very low balcony. You may feel kind of frightened, and may want to run back inside. But if you stay in the situation for a bit, you’ll realize that you start to feel less afraid — and that you didn’t fall off. Nothing horrible has happened. Do this a few more times, and maybe your anxiety level goes from a 9 to a 6. Then, try going out on a balcony one story higher, and repeat the process of realizing that nothing bad has happened. “Keep working your way up, and find you can actually tolerate this anxiety,” Teachman says. “When you stop avoiding, the anxiety starts to go down on its own.”

While this may sound daunting — why would you willingly subject yourself to something you’re fearful of? — Teachman says the whole experience can actually be quite empowering. “The person has such a sense of accomplishment because all of a sudden, they found that instead of feeling compelled to avoid a situation, or like they can’t cope when they get anxious, they feel like they can take on insurmountable situations,” she says.

Obviously, you wouldn’t do all of this alone. You’d have the support of a therapist, who can walk you through the phobia-inducing situation and help you process what you’re learning. (And it’s important to see a therapist with particular experience administering exposure therapy, Teachman notes.)

How long does it take to totally conquer a phobia? It differs from person to person, and phobia to phobia — it could take just a few sessions for some, and more for others. Teachman notes a common phobia that takes a surprisingly short amount of time to treat: Arachnophobia, or fear of spiders. “There’s a well-established treatment that is three hours long — I’ve done it!” she says. (Think: seeing pictures of spiders, and then graduating slowly to touching stuffed-animal and plastic spiders, to watching videos of spiders, to seeing live spiders in cages.)

Of course, there’s no 100 percent guarantee that exposure therapy will wipe out your phobias for good. But it “works beautifully in lots and lots of cases,” Teachman says. “I’d encourage people to give it a try. The sad fact is that people can suffer for years before they receive any help. This can make a big difference for many people to live more fulfilling lives.”

Imagine: Life without being afraid of ghosts, or spiders, or roaches, or being up high? Sounds like a dream. A dream that could actually be reality.

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