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Dear Doctor,

I am very afraid of butterflies. I don't understand why I am afraid of them. Actually they are cute and lovely. Whenever they fly near me, i run for my life. Later I've found out that I am not the only one who is afraid of butterflies. Some people are also afraid of them. Can you kindly explain me why people like me are afraid of these beautiful creatures.



ask dr-robert ask psychologist todos santos ask psychologist dr robert saltzman

© 2007 Robert Saltzman






Hello--

Technically, your fear of butterflies is what psychologists call a phobia, which means a significant, often intense, feeling of anxiety caused by a specific stimulus or situation (and out of all proportion to the stimulus or situation), which subsequently leads to avoidance of that stimulus or situation. To put this another way, a phobia is a fear-reaction to a particular object or situation. And, although the sufferer realizes that the fear is either groundless or at least out of proportion to the real danger, the sufferer's actions or state of mind are seriously impaired by the fear-reaction. Yours is a classic case of phobia because you know that butterflies are harmless--in fact, you think they are "cute and lovely"--but still you are terrified by them.


ask dr-robert ask psychologist todos santos ask psychologist dr robert saltzman

© 2010 Robert Saltzman



Although many people are familiar with the names of some of the most common phobias such as agoraphobia (fear of being in public places), claustrophobia (fear of enclosed places), or aerophobia (fear of flying), the name of the most common phobia of all is not so well known. It is arachnophobia (fear of spiders), which affects around half of all women and more than 10 percent of men.



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The wonderful Woody Allen film, Annie Hall, has a scene showing Annie's phobic reaction to a spider in her bathroom. If you are interested in the names and amazing variety of phobias, an extensive list of phobias and their scientific names can be found at phobialist.com.

Now a phobia can sometimes be rather mild in its influence on the daily life of a sufferer. For example, if someone has a phobia about poisonous snakes, but lives on Long Island, New York, where there are no such snakes, she can move about freely, whereas if she were living in New Mexico, that same person could end up effectively paralyzed due to a apparently (but not really) justifiable fear of rattlesnakes magnified many times by the psychological phenomenon of phobia. On Long Island, the phobia is present, but the trigger for it is not. But often, a phobia can be completely immobilizing. In claustrophobia, for instance, the sufferer fears situations in which quick and easy escape is difficult. These may include crowded areas, open spaces, or any kind of situation that is likely to trigger a panic attack. Eventually, after a few panic attacks or other difficult experiences, sufferers will begin avoiding these trigger situations, sometimes to the point that they become unable to leave home.

Some of the most common symptoms of phobia include:





ask dr-robert ask psychologist todos santos ask psychologist dr robert saltzman

© 2008 Robert Saltzman




However, making a list of phobias, pointing out how common they are, or listing their debilitating symptoms as I have just done, does not address your question about why you are afraid of butterflies, and, unfortunately, that question is not so easy to answer. The psychoanalysts, beginning with Freud, believed that phobias were rooted in repressed sexual impulses, which, being unknown to the sufferer, were felt subconsciously as threatening. For example, a Freudian would say that ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) resulted from the similarity of the snake to the penis.



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© 2010 Robert Saltzman




This obvious similarity, Freud believed, would, when a snake was sighted, or even just imagined, remind the phobia sufferer (but not consciously) of his or her fear of actually acting out repressed desires--desires pushed into the shadows of awareness--involving a penis. Then, that fear, which really was an anxiety about ones own sexuality and attitudes towards penises, would be projected onto the object of the snake instead.

Behaviorists would disagree strongly with this theory, holding instead that phobias are learned avoidance responses, usually beginning in childhood by imitation of the avoidance behavior of another person, and then strengthened by subsequent conditioning. For example, if a child sees her mother frightened by a cat (ailurophobia), she may begin to fear cats. Then, if her mother praises her for avoiding cats, the avoidance behavior will be strengthened, or, it might be strengthened by a bad experience with a cat, such as being scratched.



ask dr-robert ask psychologist todos santos ask psychologist dr robert saltzman

© 2007 Robert Saltzman




The existential-humanistic school of psychology might say that phobias begin with a failure to self-actualize--to find ones real place in life--leaving the under-developed personality especially vulnerable to unreasonable fears, while the more biological point of view might say that a tendency toward phobia is genetic, possibly having something to do with a particularly sensitive, "hair-trigger" nervous system. I could go on with this tour of psychological speculation, but you get the idea: since no one really understands phobia, the theories abound, and none of them can be proved, nor even adequately tested. Probably new advances in real-time brain imaging will lead to increased understanding of phobia sooner or later, but we are not there yet. So, I am afraid that I have no good answer to your question, and I do not believe that anyone else does either.

Since this is the case, I do not recommend any kind of depth or analytic psychotherapy as a treatment for phobia. In other words, sitting with a psychologist and talking about the causes of ones phobia, as you did in your question to me, probably is not the best way to go about dealing with it. A better way, in my view, is treatment by means of modeling and desensitization. This treatment involves experiencing the fearsome object or situation in the company of the therapist. By remaining calm, the therapist models more reasonable behavior in the face of the trigger situation or object, and gradually, through repetition of exposure to the trigger, the sufferer might become desensitized to it. If the trigger is a fixed situation such as fear of flying or stage-fright (topophobia), a dose of valium or other benzodiazepine medication taken just before the event is another treatment I have recommended with generally good results.

Be well.








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