What Are You Afraid Of? A Guide to Dealing with Your Worst Fears

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How to Deal

"I have a total phobia about throwing up. I can't go near vomit. I'm pregnant and don't know how I'm going to handle motherhood because babies throw up, right?"

First of all, you're not bonkers. You just have emetophobia, from the Greek word emesis for "vomit." You can find information and kindred spirits at the International Emetophobia Society web site, emetophobia.org. You can even help them compile a database of movies, starting with Alien, that emetophobes should avoid seeing.

Now, more practically, what can you do to prepare for your imminent bundle of burp-ups? "You're going to have to accept it," says Dr. Yashari, who specializes in helping new mothers and has had several patients with this worry. "Our brain helps us naturally get used to things. Every time the baby throws up it'll get a little easier to deal with." You also need to realize that you've never dealt with this phobia with your own baby and that mothers are hardwired to care for their sick children. Have some faith in your maternal instinct. Your baby's welfare will trump your fears.

"Whenever I feel nervous I pick my cuticles until they bleed. I know this is disgusting, but I can't stop. Am I crazy?"

Lots of people pick cuticles, bite nails, or twirl hair, so "am I crazy" is not the right question. The right question is, Do I need help? The answer is a definite yes. Idly picking at your dry cuticles from time to time is one thing, but making several fingers bleed every time you're stressed out is something else. You are hurting yourself, and you should see a doctor to find out why you're doing it.

You would think this would have a single cause. But the human psyche is so complex that our experts see three possible diagnoses. The first is anxiety -- it's a classic nervous habit. The second is a compulsive disorder, commonly defined as having three components: tension that builds to a need to do something; immense relief upon giving in to the compulsion; then guilt or disgust, or both, for having done it -- a rather cruel psychic whiplash.

The third, most serious possibility is self-mutilation. Attacking your cuticles is not that different from pulling out your eyelashes or cutting yourself. It's a symptom of crushingly low self-esteem or distress, says Gary Felton, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. "The psychology is, if I make myself bleed, then I must exist. There's a me in here somewhere, so I'm not truly worthless or of no value." Therapy for this is deep and longstanding. Please go see a doctor. Homing in on the right diagnosis is critical. And you can't do it by yourself.

"My mother is in her 80s and lives alone and I worry nonstop about her dying. It's terrible but I have to be prepared for it, yes?"

Death is one of life's toughest chapters, and fearing the loss of a parent is built into our nature, says Dr. Pelusi. There's no denying that your mom is getting older and will, of course, die. But rather than just worrying about your impending loss, let the reality of the situation bring you closer together in new ways, suggests Dr. Felton. Encourage your mom to talk about her feelings and her fears, what she still wants to accomplish, and what still makes life fun for her. And don't let your fears interfere with spending quality time together. "One of the most important things I try to do for people is help them live in the present," Dr. Felton says. Do something fun with your mom, and make the best of however much time you have left together. May it be many happy years.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, September 2009.


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