“Balloons – I am afraid of them more than anything! Every time someone blows up air balloons at a party I nearly get a heart attack, as I fear that it will burst any minute. When I hold an air balloon in my hand I get an anxiety attack.

It must be the most useless fear in the world but I cannot help it,” writes the pseudonym “elawa” on hevoset.com, a popular web discussion forum for equestrian enthusiasts.

Whether balloons, darkness or other people, everyone has fears they have to live with. Fear is a part of our life since birth. The emotion serves an important function by making a child aware of a perceived danger. Throughout our lives we manage fear, try to overcome it, while at the same time try not be subdued by it.

“The fact that we can learn about things that might be dangerous for us and try to avoid them in the future is fundamental in ensuring our survival,” says Ruth Franco, a psychologist based in Helsinki. Fear can manifest itself physically – when your heartbeat quickens, your muscles tense, the iris of your eye enlarges, the hairs on your skin stand up – or psychologically, when we focus on the assumed danger and ignore everything else.

Yet, fear manifests itself most visibly in fearful behaviour. In his hugely successful book Small fears and large phobias, French psychologist Christophe André suggests that fearful behaviour works according to the “rule of three Fs”: fight, flight or freeze.

From simple fears to complex phobias

“I have a fear of clothing stores, if ever I should wander into one. First, I start feeling hot and my heart begins to race and next comes a panic attack. If I don’t get out of the store quickly, the attack can be fairly rough,” admits “Cicero”.

When fear provokes very intense and uncomfortable reactions and handicaps your daily life, it becomes a phobia. “Caddie”, a participant in the online discussion forum on phobias, has arachnophobia, or fear of spiders, that has gotten out of hand. “I am deathly afraid of spiders. If I see even a small one I run away with lightning speed! If I have to be in the

same room with a spider, I start screaming or crying depending on how big or how close it is.”

Arachnophobia is the most common of all known phobias, but altogether the American Psychiatric Association recognizes a startling 6,456 distinct phobias. The range of human phobias is impressive, and the ancient Greeks have kindly invented a word for each of them. If fear of spiders is the most common, apopathodiaphulatophobia, or fear of constipation, is among the rarest ones. One could also suffer from the fear of coming back home from the hospital (oikofobia), siderodromofobia (fear of travelling by train), trikofobia (fear of hair), tafofobia (fear of being buried alive) or even the supreme fear of fears – phobophobia.

Hell or other people

Some phobias are specifically centred on other people. “Social phobia is one of the most common phobias that make people turn to professional help,” Franco says. “Like other

phobias, social phobia stems from a built-in mechanism with attempts to ‘protect’ us from possible harm. But in this case we are talking about emotional survival, which is just as important for the human being as physical survival.”

Who suffers from social fear? The answer is simple: everyone. Anxiety and shyness are not dangerous, but they can be quite troublesome.

“Many people have  experienced rejection and criticism from others to the point of developing a social phobia. It is characterised in public by an irrational fear of situations (fear to speak, to blush, to tremble or to stutter). It is the fear of judgment by others. It often mingles with a feeling of low self-worth or that of poor self-esteem.”

Without proper treatment, a social phobia can lead to social isolation, depression, and  dangerous forms of “self-therapy”, most commonly excessive drinking.

“Social phobia has a more chronic course than do other anxiety disorders. According to some studies, about 40 per cent of clients achieve full recovery through different kinds of psychological, medical or combined therapies, but a much higher percentage of around 70 per cent achieve partial recovery that significantly improves their quality of life,” adds Franco.

The Finnish way to fear

Franco says she has not observed any higher prevalence of social phobia among Finns. Nevertheless, she believes that many Finns would avoid making themselves or others uncomfortable in social situations at any cost, more so than people in many other cultures. Also, many Finns have difficulties in expressing certain emotions.

According to Franco, there is still some light at the end of the tunnel for fearful Finns. “What I see in therapy is that many are very self-aware and ready to work on their own issues. Maybe these differences are connected to the effects of a very individualistic society compared with other societies where the group is more important than the individual.”

What is considered a phobia in Finland may not be so in Italy, as phobias are culturally shaped.

“Behaviour that would be considered problematic in southern European countries is normal in Finland – for example not saying hi to your neighbours when you see them on the staircase – and vice versa.”

Ksenia Glebova
Hans Eiskonen

“Over the last few years I’ve been afflicted with breast cancer, psoriasis, HIV, arrhythmia and a brain tumour. Or so I’ve told myself – nothing’s ever been diagnosed. For some time I’ve suffered from incomprehensible hypochondria. When some part of my body aches, I get nervous. I start imagining new aches, I do a little research online and end up reading medical horror stories. I go see a doctor, who decides that there’s nothing wrong with me.  Then I calm down for a while, until some other minor complaint sets off the same irrational train of thought. I once suffered from the most intense headache which seemed to emanate from behind my eyes. I was absolutely certain that it was a brain tumour. I went online to compare my symptoms with others’ and gave a great deal of thought to the approaching surgery. I visited the doctor, who muttered something about bad posture and sent me off to see a physiotherapist. I told him: ‘just go ahead and say it’s a brain tumour – it’s alright, I’m prepared!’ Raising his voice, the doctor carefully, loudly enunciated: ‘Believe me, it is not a brain tumour!’ So off I went to the physiotherapist and, sure enough, the pain turned out to be a result of anxiety-induced muscle tension. I read somewhere that hypochondriacs have a heightened sense of the fragility of life, and that many of them have been traumatized by some sort of bereavement during childhood. I wouldn’t know. Hypochondria is a terrible illness that can ruin a person’s life.” Woman, 41

”I’ve suffered from panic attacks that would break out anywhere, anytime, for no apparent reason. I started to fear the situations where those attacks were triggered, and it started to evolve into a fear of social situations. For example, it was hard to sit face to face with people in a meeting while all the time fearing that panic/anxiety symptoms were going to hit: sweating, stuttering, avoiding people’s looks and a general state of physical overdrive. Dining situations were also very difficult. The symptoms could be painted over with alcohol, but that turned on itself and only served to further isolate me from social situations. You can’t go everywhere smelling like booze, and the hangover brought back the symptoms tenfold.” Man, 32

“The phobias first began to develop during my teenage years when I lost some close family members. For some reason, my strongest phobia was directed towards flying. For the past 15 years I’ve been afraid of flying – at times hysterically afraid, at others less so. I know so much about plane crashes, aircraft mechanics and safety statistics that I could no doubt hold my own in a discussion with an industry professional. But I still find myself gripped by an irrational fear as soon as I enter a plane. I once had to ask a gentlemen sitting next to me on a flight to cut short his conversation and keep his mouth firmly shut, since ‘I’m really going to need to focus on this landing.’ As the plane cruised along the runway after touchdown I desperately tried to explain my fear to my neighbour, my ears bright red with mbarrassment.” Woman, 36