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Last Updated: Friday, 8 September 2006, 12:18 GMT 13:18 UK
'I just can't break it'
By Anna Browning
BBC News

Anxious woman
It is thought 10% of people have a phobia that requires treatment

About half of adults have a phobia, with one in 10 finding their fear so debilitating they need treatment, according to estimates.

But experts say few of us actually seek help and in the meantime heightened stress levels are thought to be making us even more phobic.

A straw poll of colleagues on the BBC News website unearths a widespread and wide range of phobias - the feel of snails, the look of fish, the smell of bananas, even a single baked bean.

According to the American Medical Association, 10% of people have a phobia serious enough to require treatment, while one in five of us are phobic - as distinct from shy - of public speaking.

Jane LeClercq, 43, has a phobia of driving over 30mph, down hills and at night.

If I could get to 40mph that would be fantastic
Jane LeClercq, driving phobic

She believes it was brought on by stress at work three years ago.

"Driving to work, I suddenly developed a fear, I couldn't get the speedometer above 30," she said.

If she did she would get palpitations and sweats.

"I felt the wheels were going faster than they were, I felt as if the car was controlling me, I had no control of the brakes and that I was going to end up in the ditch."

She admits her fear is irrational. In 20 years of driving she has only ever had one minor accident.

In the last three years she has tried lots of different treatments - including hypnosis and anti-depressants - but the fastest she has managed is 35mph.

Bald man
Emetophobia - fear of vomit
Monophobia - fear of being alone
Claustrophobia - fear of confined spaces/being trapped
Trypanophobia - fear of injections
Peladophobia - fear of bald people

"If I could get to 40mph that would be fantastic," she said.

Meanwhile, she says, she gets by with "avoidance" - dodging dual carriageways, motorways and country lanes and sticking to driving around her home town of Hove and nextdoor Brighton.

"I have a permanent 'P' on my car, which keeps people off my back," she said. "It just gives me a bit of security that people are going to be kinder than they would normally.

"I get cross and angry with myself, I also think that it's a part of me that I'd rather not have. I'm a bit ashamed and embarrassed about it."

Of course, it is not just those with the phobia whose lives are affected.

Chris Lansdown, 49, from Hazlemere, Buckinghamshire, is married to Lynn, who fears buttons.

"I have to be very aware of what clothes I buy, either for myself or as presents for Lynn," he said.

"Coats with huge buttons, even button-fly boxers, are a no-no. And when I put items in the washing basket I have to remember to undo every button first, or they come out of the machine still completely fastened.

"I think several of the children's things have never been undone."

Trigger event

So what is behind the phenomenon?

Psychiatrist Dr Cosmo Hallstrom says the cause of phobias was not really known, but could be a "left-over instinct".

Contributing factors are anxiety, stress, learned behaviour and "imprinting", meaning it is inherited through genes.

Phobias often "emerge" in early, adult life, between the ages of 12 and 15, he said.

There could be a trigger event, such as being put in a broom cupboard, which can lead to a life-long fear of confined spaces.

"There is something built in us to make us learn to be afraid of certain things, but that gets a bit distorted in human beings," he said. "And this seems to come up in early adult life."

He said 50% of people had a significant phobia - one that induced recognisable symptoms over things such as a fear of thunderstorms, snakes and spiders.

A phobia was "excessive" and "unreasonable". "You know it's silly, but you can't help it. It's an emotional reaction," he said.

In most cases, these kinds of phobias had little impact on lifestyle and people could live with them.

Other phobias such as the fear of open spaces, agoraphobia, were more difficult to deal with.

Phobias, the irrational fear of something, fall into two categories: specific phobias - commonly a fear of flying, dentists or of blood - and social phobias, such as the fear public embarrassment.

Clare Pritchard and her partner Dave Brown at her brother's wedding
Clare Pritchard left her brother's wedding reception after an hour

Social phobia is less common than specific phobias, affecting about 25 people in 1,000 each year. Agoraphobia occurs in about 30 people in every 1,000 a year, and it is roughly twice as frequent among women.

For sufferers it is totally life-changing.

Clare Pritchard, 26, from Stoke-on-Trent, developed agoraphobia while she was being bullied at work.

At one point she was suffering up to 10 panic attacks a day. Indeed, it was the fear of having a panic attack in front of people which led to her fear of going out or being left alone.

Her illness has turned her from an outgoing, confident woman who enjoyed nights out to one to whom just walking her dog in the nextdoor field is an insurmountable challenge.

Six years on and she manages to leave home about once a week.

Her days are spent tidying, running her internet business and watching daytime television.

She psyched herself up to attend her brother's wedding - despite suffering three to four panic attacks a week leading up to the event - but had to leave the reception after an hour.

"I'm missing out on everything," she said.

"I want to get a job, I want to get married, but I can't. I couldn't even do my brother's wedding.

"As soon as I step out of the front door I just get dizzy and feel people are looking at me," she said.

And it carries on after she gets home.

"If I have been out, the day after I feel really sick, sometimes I am sick, and I feel really short of breath."

She has tried hypnotherapy and was in counselling until they agreed nothing more could be done.

"I just don't think there are enough people out there who understand how to help you," she said.

"I am getting better, but it's the last hurdle. I just can't beat it. I just don't know how to get out of it."

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