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Needles, heights, cockroaches: Why do you have phobias and how can you overcome them?

What are Singaporeans most afraid of? No, it’s not the ERP 2.0 system or next year’s GST rate change, although some individuals may beg to differ.

What are likely to raise our heart rate, get us breaking out in cold sweat and take our breath away, at least according to the experts I asked, range from germs and needles to situational fears such as social anxiety, heights, confined spaces and flying in a plane. 

And for some of us who grew up in the 1980s, it may also include a strange irrational fear of butterflies – no thanks to the first short story in the retro Channel 8 drama series Mystery or Mi Li Ye (it’s like M Night Shyamalan’s Old but with mutated butterflies that cause accelerated ageing).

Not that we lack other sources of urban terror growing up… house lizards that dart out of nowhere, the smack on the venetian blinds that means uh-oh, you have a beetle to handle. And the ultimate: Flying cockroaches and the ear-tunnelling antics they get up to. Enough said.

“Claustrophobia affects patients who need MRI scans for diagnosis and treatment as well as their transport options. People with social anxiety often become very depressed when they are not able to make presentations or speak up at meetings.”

But I can also see why fear is important. It keeps us from getting unalived by a predator or from letting gravity pull us to an untimely death. “Normal fear is a universal experience. Humans have evolved to react with fear when confronted with danger as this fear helps to keep us safe,” said Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist with Gleneagles Hospital.

Generally, said Koh, the therapy recommended is exposure therapy, which could involve gradually exposing you to your feared object or situation in a safe and controlled manner. “This helps patients learn that the feared object or situation is not as scary as they thought, and can help them to overcome their fears,” she said.

For example, if you’re afraid of getting into a lift, you could start off by simply thinking about getting into one. Next, you look at pictures of lifts and progress to going near one to actually stepping into a lift. When you’re comfortable with all that, you may ride the lift for one floor, then several floors and finally, ride in a crowded lift.

In some cases, medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors may also be prescribed to help manage symptoms, said Dr Lim.

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