Fear of situations

Some people who fear animals might be afraid to stray too far from a city sidewalk, because they are paralyzed by the thought of an encounter with the creature they fear. People with a different kind of simple phobia may also avoid nature, but it might be a situation, not an animal, that petrifies them—a situation such as getting trapped in a storm or ending up high on the side of a mountain.

Novelist Patrick McGrath, author of the book Spider, is not afraid of spiders at all, but of something else entirely—high

Many people attempt to manage their phobias by avoiding a specific situation. For example, a person with a fear of heights is likely to avoid going on a mountain hike.

Fear of heights

He says his fear of heights has kept him from doing certain things, such as hiking up mountains, for most of his life.

“As a small child I fell out of a tree, broke my wrist, and was knocked unconscious,” he says. He believes that experience caused his fear, which has “become stronger and stronger, to the point where I can’t watch rooftop scenes in movies.”

McGrath says he once suffered an attack of vertigo, the dizzy feeling that scares people with acrophobia (a fear of heights), during a drive through the mountains with his wife and step- son. “I realized to my horror that the road had turned into a narrow gravel track and was climbing steeply with no barrier rail up the sheer cliff-face,” he says. “After about ten yards I was dripping with sweat, my knuckles were white, and I had to face the fact that I was terrified and couldn’t go forward. . . . I just had to reverse down onto safe ground.”4

Fear of being in a situation can be even more troublesome than fearing an animal. People who are terrified of sheep, for example, can quite easily avoid them in day-to-day living, as long as their home is not a sheep farm. People with a fear of high places or crowded spaces, on the other hand, might have a harder time, especially if they live in a city. When elevators, stairwells, or crowded subway trains set off the kind of sweaty panic attacks McGrath says he suffers when he gets too high in the air, life in a city may be hard indeed.

Still, specific phobias of animals and situations are, for most people, manageable. Those who have these phobias know exactly what frightens them, and they quickly learn how to avoid panic-spurring objects or circumstances. A specific pho- bia of an animal or situation can make a person choose carefully where to go and what to do, but the fear is usually something he or she can control and cope with. This is not always the case for people with the third kind of simple phobia: a fear of natural phenomena.