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Phobias start in childhood, early adolescence

Health & Science

Medical assistance from a clinical psychologist is recommended for those who suffer depression and constant anxiety. [Courtesy]

Founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta suffered aviophobia-the fear of flying. He flew out of the country less than five times in his 15-year Presidency.

The late assistant minister John Keen once explained that “Kenyatta developed a fear of flying, on the night he was flown to detention upon his arrest by colonialists on October 20, 1952.”

Kenyatta also feared using lifts and just why his office at Harambee House was on second floor to where he arrived via the staircase.  

Jomo Kenyatta, indeed, suffered phobias-which are disorders of extreme anxiety resulting in irrational fear of objects, situations, places or living creatures.

Just before we forget, Kenyatta also feared being driven in speeding vehicles and the reason his official Limo was hardly at more than 50km/h. That is unless he slept in which case the driver often peddled hard especially during long journeys to Mombasa or neighbouring Tanzania-before the President woke up.

That is not all.

Jomo Kenyatta also had phobia for crickets and frogs croaking at night and the reason he preferred sleeping in his rural Ichaweri home instead of State House Nairobi.

Duncan, Kenya’s first head of the Civil Service and first Governor of the Central Bank-now in his 90s-once explained that Jomo thought the sounds “were ghosts of white people and frogs were croaking… he thought they were saying he should not be there.”

Kenyatta also feared medical operations despite suffering a weak heart marked by several heart attacks. But Kenyatta refused having heart pacers even when world famous South African heart surgeon, the late Dr Christiaan Barnard, was flown in for the delicate operation in 1976. Kenyatta died two years later.

John Igamba, a clinical officer at Health Professional Call Centre explains that a person with phobia “will experience intense distress when faced with the source of their fear which prevent them from functioning normally and sometimes leads to panic attack.”   

Although there are no specific reasons for phobias, psychotherapists have identified elements that contribute to their development: negative experiences, like traumatic events, the environment besides being passed down genetically in a family.

Rodgers Omuya, a psychiatric clinician at Kisii Teaching and Referral Hospital (KTRH) singles out genetics as the commonest cause arguing “if someone in your family had a certain phobia, there are high chances that a member from that family is going to have similar problem.”

Omuya also lists environmental factors “for instance a child being bullied at school and marital issues can trigger phobia disorder.” 

At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, most Kenyans feared vaccinations from misinformation, disinformation to stigma then associated with the Coronavirus.

Igamba says for most people, phobias start in early childhood, adolescence or early adulthood as “it is unusual for a phobia to start after the age of 30 years.” 

Indeed, there are cases of phobias that start after that age, a case in point being the late Nichols Biwott, once a powerful Minister and MP for Keiyo South. His phobias included a paralyzing fear of being poisoned and for which he feared eating or drinking in public.

Biwott was also obsessed with his own security and was known to use different vehicles during long or short journeys. Few knew where he lived. Biwott succumbed to cancer in 2017.

Phobias have no geographic limitations as in America, business magnate, the late Howard Hughes had legendary fear of germs. Hughes, who locked himself in hotel rooms for months on end naked, to avoid germs, but succumbed to heart failure in 1976.

Then there was the late American popstar, Michael Jackson, who suffered from mysophobia or fear of bacteria. He feared dirt, grime and being assassinated on stage. He died in 2009.

Other lesser mortals also have phobias, the commonest being; specific phobia, agoraphobia and social phobia.

Specific phobia is an irrational fear of a specific trigger which develops from the age of four to eight. Agoraphobia is situational like leaving the comfort of home, shopping in a mall, traveling by plane, or being in crowds. Social phobia, on the other hand, is an intense, persistent anxiety of being watched or judged by others. Phobia can affect your work, school, and other day-to-day activities that call for interactions and dialogue, making it difficult to keep friends.

KTN Swahili news anchor, Mary Kilobi recalled sometimes back that “sometimes I feel anxiousness on air speaking in front of a camera, bearing in mind a number of viewers watching.”   

The same goes for Sylvester Mwangi, a businessman in Nairobi who suffers the fear of public speaking and says “I always have this fear of talking to strangers like in a crowded audience, whenever I find myself in this situation I fear being judged but I am trying to change this behaviour.”  

Another common type of phobia is atelophobia or fear of imperfection and which Riziki Omweri, a university student admits she suffers as “I strive for everything to be perfect that even if it is in simple things like utensils, I wouldn’t want even a cup to be out of place when I already arranged it in a specific order.”

Johnson Ndung’u from Nakuru County has fear of failure “which makes me work so hard and that of losing friends, I like maintaining friendships.”

 People who suffer all these conditions often shape their lives to avoid them as the areas of the brain that deals with fear and stress keep retrieving them  inappropriately, according to Igamba adding that phobias alter how our brains work.

“Some areas of the brain store and recall dangerous or potential deadly events, if a person faces a similar event later in life, those areas of the brain retrieve the stressful memory, sometimes more than once,” he says. “This causes the body to experience the same reaction.”

Phobia disorder makes an individual to experience different symptoms including; a sensation of uncontrollable anxiety when exposed to source of fear, avoiding the source of fear at all costs, inability to function properly when exposed to the trigger and acknowledgement that the fear is irrational, unreasonable and exaggerated, combined with an inability to control the feelings.

“Before it can be called phobia, a person must have had symptoms of phobia for at least six months and have had an impact on their functioning; then they need treatment,” explains Omuya.

The two types of treatment according to him include psychotherapy, a psychological session with a psychologist and medication to ease acute symptoms “although psychotherapy is the most successful approach of dealing with phobia.”

There are also different techniques for getting rid of phobias including relaxation via breathing during times of heightened stress, visualization that involves mentally images of coping with a situation that can trigger anxiety and self-help groups where one shares their experiences with others in the same situation.  Omuya advises parents to expose children to anything that makes them uncomfortable if they have a fear as “over time, and they will be able to overcome their phobia.”

Medical assistance from a clinical psychologist is, however, recommended for those who suffer depression and constant anxiety that triggers their blood pressure to fluctuate to abnormal levels.

Though there is no single effective treatment from a phobia speaking with a psychologist or psychiatrist has been known to help victims considering that “phobia can be a source of genuine and ongoing distress but is treatable and source of fear avoidable.”

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