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What are you so scared of? How to beat phobias

After it was revealed that a young boy had to be hypnotised to fly home from the Middle East, five writers tell of their phobias...

When schoolboy Joe Thompson developed an acute fear of flying he ended up stranded in Abu Dhabi for 16 months.

The 12-year-old had moved to the Middle East with his family when his father took a job there four years ago. But when the Thompsons decided to come home to England, young Joe’s phobia was so great that he simply refused to step foot on a plane. After four previous attempts to board a flight failed, his parents sought the help of hypnotist Russell Hemmings — and lask week a relieved Joe finally landed at Heathrow airport.

“I can’t believe I did it,” he said afterwards. “Without Russell none of this would have worked.

“He’s not just my hypnotherapist, he’s my friend. He’s never doubted what I can do. He always says, ‘You can, you can.’”

So why do some of us develop an overwhelming fear? And what are the best ways to try to overcome it?



It sounds like a tall story especially for someone who's 6ft 3in, but I am terrified of heights. Not just scared. Stomach-churningly petrified.

It's maybe the height of nonsense to say I'm afraid to even stand up. But the long and the short of it is that my fear knows no bounds.

I've no idea how my acrophobia got off the ground but I've been known to drive 50 miles to bypass a dizzying mountain pass or pay for a bus tour rather than hire a car to see the most scenic coastal roads on the planet.

And never mind loved ones, I couldn't even watch people I hate crossing the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.

My one and only skiing holiday saw me quickly sloping off to the baby runs rather than climbing every mountain.

Paradoxically, I've coped with having my head in the clouds in the tallest buildings on, or rather above, earth. Inside them, not outside, I hasten to add.

But nowhere is safe. The lofty CN Tower in Toronto didn't register on my scare-o-meter until I found myself looking down on the world through a glass floor. My phobia even kicked in as I tried to scuba dive in Spain where it suddenly sank in that depths were just as frightening as the heights.

Professionally, I've refused to report on pass-the-sick bucket experiences like wing-walking or going atop the Harland & Wolff cranes.

But I have SDLP politician Brid Rodgers to thank for getting me through one of my lowest high points — my first live television interview on a cherry-picker, an elevated platform.

During an Orange stand-off in Portadown, it seemed like the sky was the limit as the cameramen raised the horrific hoist to 60ft in the air to ensure he was able to get Drumcree parish church in the background.

His jokes about nearer my God to thee fell flat.

But seeing — and hearing — my high anxiety, Mrs Rodgers grabbed my hands and even as the interview got tetchier and tetchier, she never lost her cool… or her reassuring grip.

Sometimes it's good to have friends in high places.



Several years ago I attended a hypnotherapy session to get to the root of my deep-seated phobia.

But when the therapist explained that the best way to overcome my fear was to face the source head on, I made my apologies and bolted out of the room. I'd rather live with my anxiety than put myself through the trauma of getting up close and personal with my nemesis.

My fear is probably the most common of all. I'm terrified of eight-legged creatures. The very word (sshhh, whisper it, spider) is enough to induce a quickening of my heart rate and clammy palms. My fear runs so deep, I'm even petrified of pictures of spiders. This time of year is particularly dangerous for me, with the change in weather conditions and the annual domestic invasion of said creatures.

For some inexplicable reason, people insist on sharing their photographs on Facebook — WITH NO WARNING. “Look at this massive one I found hanging on my curtains last night,” they nonchalantly declare. One moment, I'm scrolling through Timeline, having a nosy at what my friends are up to, next, I'm screaming and throwing my iPhone to the floor.

The presence of one in my home reduces me to a neurotic mess. I don't just shriek and run out of the room. I have full-blown panic attacks, when I burst into tears and find it difficult to breathe. My family are well used to these irrational eruptions. When I'm confronted by an arachnid, I phone home in a state. I don't even have to explain. My inability to breathe properly normally gives the game away. My Superwoman sister jumps in the car and heads straight to mine, shooing me into the safety of another room while she bravely tackles the monster.

I've tried putting pepper down on the floor, keeping windows and doors closed, and ensuring all bath and sink plugs are in place to prevent any unwanted visitors. But still they get in, scurrying across my floorboards or racing up the walls as I stand frozen to the spot, screeching hysterically. In the rational part of my brain, I tell myself they're probably more frightened of me. But the irrational wins out every time. It's me — or my sister, or an ex-boyfriend, or a driver from my local cab firm — against them. I'll ring anyone I can think of to come to my rescue.

I've even pulled random men in off the street to squash my spider, ahem. Well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.



I’m so scared of heights I even have nightmares about them. I dream that I’m paralysed with fear half way up a really tall ladder and can’t go any further. As a teenager I couldn’t resist going up on the huge ferris wheel at Funderland at the King’s Hall with three friends. I sorely regretted it, however, when it ground to a halt when we were at the very top. It was windy and my friends thought it was a great laugh to watch my face turning whiter as they rocked back and forth, making the little car thing we were in swing precariously.

However I don’t like an irrational fear getting the better of me. When I found myself confronted by the longest zip-line in Ireland, at an adventure course in Co Meath, my first instinct was to run like the wind in the opposite direction. Just looking up at the 40ft platform and the big long steel wire running from it in to a forest gave me the head-staggers.

Problem was, that I was with two other journalists who were on for giving it a go and, apart from feeling like an idiot backing out, I thought maybe this was a chance to overcome my fear. Climbing the ladder up to the ledge was awful; I had to force one foot above the other and try desperately not to freeze. Then on the level I couldn’t have looked down if you paid me; it was like waiting to be executed. So I kept focused on the tops of the trees at the end of the line while the instructor strapped me in to the contraption for dangling off the wire.

“OK, just walk off the edge and away you go,” he instructed blithely.

I thought I was going to faint. It was only the goading of my companions that got me taking baby-steps to the edge, where I teetered for about 20 seconds, hands clinging to the bar attached to the zip-line. Taking that step into mid-air was the freakiest feeling ever, but I did it — and actually enjoyed whizzing down into the forest.

I'm still afraid of heights but I'd go zip-lining again. The ferris wheel, though? No way.



Ever since I can remember I have had a major phobia of lightning. I haven't a clue why. I've never even come close to being hit by it or even know anyone who was struck by it.

All I know is that if there's a lightning storm on the horizon I'm inside the nearest building like a shot. When I was younger the only place I felt safe was glued to my mum's side until the ordeal was over.

On a recent holiday to Greece my partner and I were dining on the roof garden of a restaurant. I kept seeing what I thought were camera flashes until I realised that it was lightning in an approaching storm.

I immediately asked to be moved indoors and finished dinner at such speed the restaurant staff thought something was wrong with the establishment.

By the time we had returned to our hotel my pulse was racing and I was almost in tears. It was a horrible feeling.

As it turned out, the storm never quite made it to land. We were able to retreat to the hotel bar and watch an amazing lightning show take place in clouds that were about 30–40 miles away.

Indeed it was so distant we couldn't even hear the thunder. At that point I was fine. I was inside a building and I could see the storm was far away.

They say a phobia is an irrational fear and they're not wrong.

I know the chances of me being hit by lightning, particularly in this country where storms are rare and fleeting, are very small.

Nevertheless, even while writing this short piece I'm getting anxious about it — my shoulders are hunched and my pulse is racing.



In its broadest sense agoraphobia is a fear of being outside or large open spaces. It's a phobia that can stem from mental illness because it also denotes a fear of being unable to control your surroundings.

My first bout of agoraphobia came when I was a teenager. I was bullied at school and beaten up. I didn't want to go back to school in the days afterwards but my parents were having none of. By the time the following Monday morning rolled around I wasn't capable of going outside.

The second bout I had came when Riley was born. Going out became a big deal because I had to take so much with me for the baby and I was also in a lot of pain because I had had a C-section. I started having panic attacks when I went outside. It was the lack of control of the surroundings and the feeling that people were looking at me.

Around that time I made the decision that no matter what happened I would make sure when the time came I would be well enough to take Riley to nursery school on his first day. I've constantly worked at it. First of all with different types of medication then with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I go and sit on the steps outside the house for five minutes every six hours and then I write about it how I feel.

My agoraphobia comes and goes but a lot depends on both my physical and mental health. Riley only had to be at school two days in his first week and I was able to drop him off and pick him up both times but I haven't been able to go back since. My husband Lee now has to take him to nursery school and collect him.

Agoraphobia is something that is most likely going to be with me for the rest of my life, according to the doctor.”

Sera McDaid (29) is otherwise known as The Agoraphobic Fashionista. She lives in Ballymoney with her husband Lee and their son Riley (3).



1. Fear of spiders — arachnophobia — which tends to affect women more than men

2. Fear of snakes — ophidiophobia — often resulting from a traumatic personal experience

3. Fear of heights — acrophobia — which can lead to anxiety attacks

4. Fear of open spaces or crowded areas — agoraphobia — about one third of people with panic disorder develop this phobia

5. Fear of dogs — cynophobia — which is often related to being bitten as a child

6. Fear of thunder and lightning — astraphobia

7. Fear of injections — trypanophia

8. Social phobias which lead to people becoming reclusive to avoid events which might trigger an attack

9. Fear of flying — pteromerhanopobia

10. Fear of germs and dirt — mysophobia



1. Take time out

It feels impossible to think clearly when you’re flooded with fear or anxiety. The first thing to do is take time out so you can calm down physically.

2. What’s the worst that can happen?

When you’re anxious about something — work, a relationship or an exam — it can help to think through what the worst result could be. Sometimes the worst that can happen is a panic attack.

3. Expose yourself to your fears

Avoiding fears only makes them scarier. Whatever your fear, if you face it, it should start to fade.

4. Welcome the worst

Each time fears are embraced, it makes them easier to cope with the next time they strike, until in the end they are no longer a problem.

5. Get real

Fears tend to be much worse than reality, as schoolboy Joe Thompson (right) discovered about his fear of flying.

6. Don’t expect perfection

Bad days and setbacks will always happen, and it’s essential to remember that life is messy.

7. Visualise

Take a moment to close your eyes and imagine a place of safety and calm and let the positive feelings soothe you until you feel more relaxed.

8. Talk about it

Sharing fears takes away a lot of their scariness. And if your fears aren’t going away, ask your GP for help.

9. Go back to basics

A good sleep, a wholesome meal and a walk are often the best cures for anxiety.

10. Reward yourself

Finally, give yourself a treat when you have picked up that spider or confronted your fear.


From Belfast Telegraph