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While most of us profess to be normal, how do we define normality? Deep down, or not so deep down in some instances, many average people suffer from fears, phobias, or superstitious beliefs. What is it that can turn a strong-willed pillar of society into a quivering mass of hysteria, or perhaps cause a high-flying company executive to become a fanatical, obsessive failure?

Growing up as kids, many of us were scared stiff of the dark with its mythical bogeyman. But we soon learned this ghostlike monster didn’t exist.

As adults, some irrational beliefs are not so easily dismissed. Walking under ladders is still avoided by many. If a black cat crosses our path, it’s either lucky or unlucky depending on our upbringing and country of origin. Other well-known superstitions involve self-preservation sayings such as: “touch wood” and “cross my heart and hope to die.” Breaking a mirror or opening an umbrella indoors brings fear of a future of bad luck.

Then there’s the ominous Friday the 13th and the widespread concern associated with the number 13 itself. While the origin of some fears isn’t entirely certain, like so many of our beliefs and folklore that have been handed down through generations, theories abound. For instance, some say Friday the 13th can be traced to Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus, being the 13th guest at the Last Supper, and the fact that Jesus was crucified on a Friday. Other reasons include: in ancient Rome, it was believed witches gathered in groups of 12—a 13th supposedly being the devil. While in Scotland, thirteen is known as the “Devil’s Dozen.”

Rational individuals have little problem with Friday 13th. But for some, sheer fear is associated with this calendar occurrence. Some people won’t drive cars, fly in planes, eat in restaurants, go to work, or plan a wedding on that date. People affected with this irrational fear are called paraskevidekatriaphobics. (Yes, it’s in the medical dictionary.)

There is a seemingly endless list of phobias, superstitions, myths, omens, and old wives’ tales, along with inherited instincts, that influence our everyday lives. While fears and phobias seem ridiculous to less superstitious individuals, for those afflicted with such problems, the condition is very real and at times very terrifying!

A phobia (according to Wikipedia) is “an irrational, persistent fear of certain situations, objects, activities, or persons.” Someone with a phobia (and there are millions of sufferers worldwide) has a strong sense of anxiety, stress, and discomfort which can create severe difficulties in coping with daily life.

While others scoff at those unfortunate enough to endure the embarrassment of this disorder, the victim may be suffering panic attacks, acute anxiety, may burst into tears or break out in a cold sweat, may become hysterical or nauseous, have heart palpitations, or experience breathlessness. These are just some of the many associated symptoms.

I once worked with a lady who had ranidaphobia, a fear of frogs. Just a picture of one of these cute little green things would send her from the room, uttering loud shrieking cries, much to the delight of her so called friends.

Possibly the most common phobia is arachnophobia (fear of spiders), with around 50 percent of women and 10–25 percent of men having this anxiety, so it isn’t just little Miss Muffet who’s afraid of eight-legged crawlers! Aerophobia (fear of flying), claustrophobia (fear of small spaces), and acrophobia (fear of heights) also share top billing when it comes to phobias.

Now for the good news. People with phobias can be cured! Recently I read of a woman who was petrified of spiders to the extent that she became afraid to open her front door, fearing a “big hairy creature would latch upon me.” Her heart began to palpitate and her hands tremble every time she approached the door.

She’s now cured! She attended a short workshop, “Fearless at Taronga” held at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia, by a former arachnophobe named Warrick Angus. As a boy, he was plagued by an irrational fear of spiders. Today he’s a leading spider expert, heading the team at “Backyard to the Bush” who, along with Alistair Horscroft, another thinking expert, conduct the courses. Amazingly, their success rate for curing participants is around 98 percent.

Another type of anxiety complex, which requires pages and pages of explanation, but I’ll touch on it briefly, is social phobia. Sufferers are afraid of doing something for fear it may embarrass them or cause humiliation in public. This could include public speaking (I’ll put my hand up for that one), eating or drinking with friends, using public toilets or public transport, and contact with people in general, which causes an abnormal level of discomfort.

As fears are many and varied, so too are symptoms, which include profuse sweating, stammering, blushing, trembling, and a difficulty talking coherently.

A more recent anxiety disorder—obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)—describes a person who has repeated obsessions, thoughts, or ideas. Most sufferers of this recurrent compulsion to carry out some senseless task, are well aware that their actions are irrational and excessive, but still they feel powerless to control or overcome this affliction.

According to a University of Western Australia report, two to three percent of the population suffer some form of this distressing disorder. The most common form of OCD is a fear of germs and being dirty. Sufferers may spend hours a day cleaning and recleaning the same area or may shower several times a day. The late pop-singer Tiny Tim (“Tip Toe Through the Tulips”) was a classic example. He wouldn’t eat or drink in public and showered many times a day. Attempting to justify his actions, he rationalized it as his “symbol of purity.”

There are also people who check constantly to see if doors have been locked, repeatedly check that appliances are turned off, and meticulously or precisely arranged objects and can’t bear anyone to move or touch them.

Many top sporting stars exhibit some of these symptoms. Take for example Italian motorcycle superstar Valentino Rossi, a seven-time world champion.

Rossi is flamboyant and extroverted in the public eye, but compulsive in his private life; a perfectionist—extremely meticulous and methodical, almost to the point of being obsessive. When racing, everything has its place, with a special foam mat in his garage pits where he places his cap, gloves, ear plugs, etc.—always neatly laid out in exactly the same position. Similarly, each item in his suitcase is neatly folded and positioned, then carefully arranged in his hotel room or motor home.

He also has his pre-race rituals where he stretches, crouches down by his bike before mounting, and riding down pit lane standing up on the footrests. He also carries a good luck charm—a worn Ninja Turtle (the same one purchased with his mother as a boy, and the same one he had attached to his helmet when he began racing). He also races with the number 46, refusing to use the prized number one, which he’s earned repeatedly.

Superstition in sports is nothing new and exists in most sports. According to Dr. Richard Lustberg, a psychologist who runs the Web site, athletes begin to believe and want to believe—that their particular routine is enhancing their performance

Some weird and wonderful examples of superstitions are: wearing “lucky” apparel, such as underpants or socks, always putting on one shoe (usually the right foot) before the other, and carrying a “lucky charm.”

In some instances, sentimentality is combined with superstition. Golfer Tiger Woods usually wears a red shirt on Sundays when playing golf (reputedly to help him feel more aggressive) and in motor racing, former Australian Formula 1 world champion Alan Jones always wore red underwear.

Current Ferrari driver Felipe Massa once said, “If Friday goes well I use the same underpants on Saturday. If that is a good day, I wear them again on Sunday. That’s what I did in Brazil, when I won.”

Some drivers also have strong superstitions about not driving green cars, while others always step into a car from the left.

Sometimes in our lives we are all influenced by superstitions—perhaps for a sense of security or as a guide to help us find the correct path. In the long run we discover that deriving our hope or fear from objects or events does not result in happiness or a balanced life.

Superstitions can cause us to think about life, but, upon reflection, we need to be wise enough to see beyond random traditions, objects, or events. There is a sure way to lead a life of direction and consistency—let God, who created us and knows us completely, lead us in our everyday lives. Superstitions lead only to a downward spiral of self-doubt and double-checking. But allowing God to take leadership of your life results in a peaceful mind!

Fears and Phobias

by Glenis Lindley
From the October 2007 Signs