No question, the age of fear is upon us.
True, people have always been scared of something or other. A great thinker of the 6th century B.C. reportedly observed, "It is torture to fear what you cannot overcome."
Back then, it seemed, people figured they couldn't do much about their fear. There was a shortage of behaviour therapists. The publishers of the day weren't cranking out self-help books. No one realized there was a great untapped fear market to capitalize on.
Not so today. The publishing industry has sized us up and decided the world is full of cowards. It must be so. Otherwise, how are we to account for the current onslaught of books designed to help us overcome our fears?
If you haven't come across some of these titles, it could be that you're afraid to get out and look around: "Kicking the Fear Habits: Using Your Automatic Orienting Reflex to Unlearne Your Anxieties, Fears and Phobias:" 'Stop Running Scared! Fear Control Training: The New Way to Control Fears, Phobias and Anxieties;" "Phobia Free: How to Fight Your Fears:" "Fears: Learning to Cope;" and "Nothing to Fear: Coping with Phobias."
Publishers have been known to make mistakes, but maybe they have something here. Take, for example, an ordinary day in the life of your typical American Success Story and the fears or phobias that might have to be overcome to complete that day:
One flies to Los Angeles (aerophobia), gets on a freeway (autophobia), rides a crowded elevator (claustrophobia) to the 13th floor and looks out the window (acrophobia), meets a dozen new clients (anthropophobia) to his hotel where the water is temporarily out of order and he can't get clean (mysophobia).
"The three most popular fears, if I may coin a contradiction," said Manuel J. Smith, author of 'Kicking The Fear habit,' are the fear of flying, the fear of heights, and the fear of public speaking." One estimate places the number of Americans with a fear of flying, ranging from a mild fear to panic, at 25 million.
The 43-year-old Smith, a professor of clinical psychology at U.C.L.A.; seemed absolutely fearless yesterday. He has pust flown in, as part of his book promotion tour, and was planning to give a speech at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Though the restaurant where he drank is coffee was on the hotel's first floor, there wasn't the slightest doubt that he would have been just as happy had there been a place on the roof.
Yet even Smith has had his phobias. When he was in the Army, he relates in his book, he was aboard a lumbering aircraft that took no fewer than three tries to get off the ground. The flight also was turbulent and upon landing he ran away from the craft. He suffered from fear of flying for the next five years. That phobia was easier to explain than his fear of sharks, which kept him away from the ocean for 10 years.
The best thing to do with a phobia is to forget about it, unless it begins to have a serious effect on your life. But, as Smith relates, if you don't like dogs and your neighbor gets a Great Dane, it's time to act.
"We can learn to fear anything," he says, "like a shark in a tank at Sea World. That's a very irrational fear. When something becomes embarrassing, costs you money, interferes with your social life, it's time to do something about it.
"There was this guy who turned down a job with a one-third raise in pay because the job was on the 15th' floor. You know, like don't you have another office in Anaheim on the first floor?
Smith says phobias can strike unexpectedly. He cited a woman who had not a sign of fear of heights until the time she went backpacking and noticed a small child peering over a precipice.
What's a person to do?
Smith asks us to concentrate on our "OR." That's our orienting refliex, the "fundamental perceptual-arousal system that neurologically sorts our what we see, hear, smell, touch and feel." As Smith says, "The 'OR' is your automatic decision-maker. For example, if that girl at the end of the romm screams, you're not going to say, 'Gee, that's an interesting scream.' You're going to look."
Smith says that by use of the "OR" we can get control of our involuntary nervous system, that there are ways to trigger the "OR" so we'll feel better. If we go aboard a plane hungry, for example, we'll "orient" toward food being served and not so much the flight itself. But there's more to it than that.
"Bring along everything you have going for you," he adds. "Don't be a sportsman, use the shotgun approach to getting rid of phobias. Starve yourself. Bring along an executive puzzle. If you like to junggle, maybe you can juggle. If you like the trumpet, caress it. Do whatever you can do."
Sometimes, Smith says, a person can overcome chronic fears in less than an hour, but there are no guarantees. For example, he says the toughest problem in overcoming an extreme fear of flying is deciding to get on the plane.
But when or if, you do, he says, "Bring along a friend to rub your back. Bodily contact is super."