Fears can protect one from danger, but they can also grow out of control. Phobias can be treated.


When she returned to Singapore from Australia to visit her elderly parents during the COVID-19 pandemic, Anna* had to be quarantined for 14 days in a hotel. By the end of the first week, she started feeling a sense of panic rising from within her. She had an extremely fast heartbeat, a tightness in her chest, and intense anxiety.

Anna was experiencing a phobia, or an intense and irrational fear. Her hotel room was nice, and she was able to communicate with her family via video and audio calls, but the lack of human contact and fresh air, she said, just got to her.

Many people around the world reported similar symptoms during their time in quarantine. That sense of fear during quarantine may be unusual for them, but phobias in general are not. Associate Professor Leslie Lim, Senior Consultant, Department of Psychiatry, Singapore General Hospital (SGH), cites the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which noted that nearly three per cent of the world’s population suffer from at least one of the 100 most common phobias.

They include social phobia, fear of heights, and fear of enclosed spaces. Some phobias are inborn, such as the fear of loud noises and fear of falling, which serve to keep young children from danger.

Others arise from traumatic events. “For instance, if you were trapped in a train or a tunnel, it may cause you to develop a fear of enclosed spaces,” said Prof Lim.

People learn to fear through what he calls conditioning or faulty learning. For example, a person trapped in a lift without air conditioning might feel suffocated and become increasingly anxious if he lets irrational thoughts take over. Instead of remaining calm and waiting to be rescued, he thinks of the what-ifs, like “What if the lift cables snap?”. His fear grows, as a result.

A person may develop a fear of dogs after an over-friendly dog jumps on him. If he does not deal with this phobia, he may start fearing other animals, such as cats. Confronting the fear is the best way to deal it. “Expose yourself to the phobia for at least one to one and a half hours, and the fear will gradually diminish on its own,” Prof Lim said.

Those who are not able to overcome their fears on their own can seek medical treatment. Phobias can be treated successfully with counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy, said Prof Lim.

*name and some details have been changed

Types of phobia

  • Agoraphobia

What is it?

A fear of being trapped in an enclosed spaces, such as a lift, train station, or in an MRT train entering the tunnel; and being stuck in a traffic jam.

How to overcome it?

Take the lift with a companion, who can wait on a lower floor as the fear eases. Gradually increase the duration alone.

  • Social phobia

What is it?

A fear of social situations where the person has to speak or sing in front of others, and is fearful of being judged negatively.

How to overcome it?

Speak to a small group or by preparing a draft script. The audience size is gradually increased, and the person learns to maintain eye contact, perform role-play, and make small talk.

  • Simple phobia

What is it?

A fear of heights, water, animals, insects, lightning, or thunder.

How to overcome it?

Exposure to photos or videos of friendly dogs and observe others stroking the dog.

  • Rare phobia

What is it?

Taijin-Kyofu-Sho is a Japanese culture-specific fear of offending others by their bodies or appearances, such as emitting body odour. This phobia has been reported in the US, Europe and Australia.

How to overcome it?

Deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation are techniques that can help reduce feelings of anxiety in social situations. Joining a support group or attending group therapy are good ways to practise social skills in a safe setting. Sufficient sleep, a healthy diet, and regular exercise are important for overall well-being and keeping anxiety at bay.

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