Facing Fear and Loathing Boston Summers
Most Bostonians welcome the summer, the sunshine, and a chance to finally spend time outdoors with open arms. But for a select few, the summer can present terrifying obstacles that make it hard to even step outside their homes.
Fear, which is a response of alarm or stress, is something that most people experience on a day to day basis. Fear is normal— in fact, we’re all built with fear systems that are designed to keep us safe. But phobias are fears that cause people to avoid certain situations in order to avoid the things that they are afraid of. Phobias usually last for six months or longer, and interfere with a person’s ability to function normally. Individuals with phobias suffer from what Boston University psychology professor Dr. Donna B. Pincus calls marked and irrational fears about specific objects and situations. “A phobia is a fear reaction that is out of proportion for that actual danger,” she says. As the Director of Child and Adolescent Fear and Anxiety Treatment at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, she studies and helps treat phobias.
“For example, if you have a phobia of dogs, you won’t go to the park because you’d be afraid of the dogs,” Pincus says. “It interferes with your daily functioning. It causes avoidance and is persistant.”
A quick search for “phobias” online yields thousands of results. You’ll see listings for anthophobia, or the fear of flowers, and apiphobia, a fear of bees. Many people struggle with brontophobia, a fear of thunderstorms, and selachophobia, which is the fear of sharks. You’ll also see listings like limnophobia, which is the fear of lakes, and omphalophobia, which is the fear of belly buttons. And if you have thermophobia, or a fear of heat, you may be stuck inside for most of the summer trying to avoid your fears.
But while you may laugh as you read through lists of phobias (especially when you see entries like bromidrosiphonia, which is the fear of body smells), phobias are no joking matter.
Bostonians are likely to experience all sorts of phobias, but Pincus says she sees an increase in specific types of phobias in her clinic during the summers: thunderstorms, insects (bees, wasps, mosquitos, and ladybugs), birds, dogs, water, needles, and flying.
Why? People are exposed to thunderstorms much more frequently during the summer, especially in Boston. They are more likely to see birds, dogs, and insects as they spend time outside. Fears of water and flying are more frequent because people are more likely to take vacations during the summer, which will lead them on to planes and to beaches and lakes. And because many students have to get shots before they start school for the fall, a fear of needles becomes more prevalent for many people during the month of August.
“If you think about avoidance, it’s easier to avoid these things during the winter,” Pincus says. “Then when they happen in the summer, people suddenly have their phobias flare up. They can no longer avoid their fears.”
Pincus uses what she calls a “fear hierarchy,” or “bravery ladder,” to help people get over their phobias, something she says anyone can use when trying to get over their fears. Her patients make a list of the things that scare them with the lowest being the least scary and the highest on the list being the most terrifying. Pincus then practices exposure therapy, which involves helping her patients approach the subjects that they fear to help them learn that they may be misinformed about the danger of those subjects.
For example, if you have a fear of dogs, petting a very small dog might be lower on the bravery ladder, but letting a large dog lick your face might be a higher item on the list. During exposure therapy, a clinician will help you encounter a medium sized dog in a safe situation, allowing you to habituate to the thing you fear and helping you realize that dogs aren’t incredibly dangerous.
Pincus says that this therapy works almost every time because it helps people correct the misinformation in their heads.
“If you stay away from what you’re afraid of, you’ll never learn,” Pincus says. “But this works. People don’t need to take drugs. This therapy works even for people who just have basic fears and not phobias.”
This brings whole new meaning to the old “do something every day that scares you” adage, but if you have any basic fears or more complicated phobias, exposure therapy might help you experience aspects of Boston’s beautiful summer that you’d previously be afraid to see.