I’m ashamed to say that when my husband told me he was terrified of cooked eggs, I mocked him and made jokes, from pretending that there was an egg in something he had just bitten into and waving my egg-based dishes under his nose.
I thought that his reactions of horror were a little exaggerated. There are plenty of foods I don’t like but I’m certainly not terrified at the thought of a kidney bean. It turns out that my reaction was wrong – and I still feel pangs of guilt for it. The fact is, my husband has a phobia. He doesn’t just hate eggs, they cause him trauma. He probably won’t read this as even the word egg is vile to him.
He won’t go to cafes due to the risk that a pan his breakfast has been cooked on had previously contained an egg. He has been physically sick at the smell of cooking eggs. If food he had ordered contained even a sliver of egg, he would not touch the entire dish, even parts that weren’t touching it.
Many people will be able to relate to his experience – or mine. It’s possible to have a phobia of anything, despite many believing only the obviously scary things – think spiders, flying, snakes – constitute a real, genuine fear. My sister has a fear of patterns; particularly dotted but any kind of repetitive pattern. Anything with hectic shapes, lines, dots or colours whether a piece of art, wallpaper or packaging terrifies her.
Other ‘weird’ phobias can include arachibutyrophobia, the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth. Octophobia is the fear of the number eight and hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia is, ironically, the fear of long words. Celebrity phobias include Billy Bob Thornton’s ‘crippling’ fear of antique furniture, Kylie Minogue’s phobia of clothes hangers, Matthew McConaughey’s fear of revolving doors, and Khloe Kardashian’s horror at belly buttons.
My husband was satisfied at the feeling of vindication when he found out the name of his own phobia, which is ovophobia. Where do these phobias originate? Are they just innate? Or are they linked to childhood experiences that may have been forgotten, but which triggered a connection to the item of fear?
When does a fear become a phobia?
Fear is a normal part of human life. But it becomes a phobia when this fear is overwhelming and debilitating. Someone with a phobia will have an extreme or unrealistic sense of danger about a particular situation, sensation, animal, or object. It might not make sense to other people, because the focus of the phobia isn’t obviously dangerous.
Phobias come under the umbrella of anxiety disorders, and can cause physical symptoms such as:
- unsteadiness, dizziness and lightheadedness
- increased heart rate or palpitations
- shortness of breath
- trembling or shaking
- an upset stomach
My husband recently recalled, after years of trying to figure his egg fear out, that he was always terrified of visiting a relative’s house as a toddler. This relative had a booming voice, slammed his fist on the table without warning and threatened to lock him in the coal shed, as well as saying that there was a monster living inside the sink.
His mum recalls how she could feel both him and his brother physically sweating with fear while on her knee and the one consistent thing that was in that kitchen was fried eggs being cooked. It’s clear that he associates that smell of eggs and the sight of them with frightening times as a child. It makes perfect sense why that phobia has manifested itself into something like this.
According to Clinical Partners, who specialize in the treatment of phobias, around 5% of children and 16% of teenagers in the UK suffer from a phobia, with most phobias developing before the age of 10.
Children and teenagers with phobias often feel ashamed about their fears and keep them secret from their friends in case they are teased. This will be the same for adults in a workplace or social setting. I’m frightened of patterns, bananas, beards or the colour yellow is hardly a comfortable ice breaker.
And yet, working alongside a new colleague with a beard or all memos coming on yellow paper would be triggering for those suffering with said phobias; making for a very uncomfortable environment both for the sufferer and the colleagues who have no idea they’re causing alarm.
Clinical Partners explains: ‘Phobias arise for different reasons but a bad experience in early years can trigger a pattern of thoughts that result in a powerful fear of a situation – for instance if your child falls ill after having an injection, they may develop an ongoing fear to injections, which can get worse over time.
‘Children may also “learn” to have a phobia – for instance if a close family member is afraid of spiders and the child witnesses them screaming when they see one, they may also develop that fear.’ There are a lot of environmental factors at play here but for the less common phobias, we have to dig deeper to try and work out the source.
There is no guarantee that discovering that source will erase your phobia but if the phobia is seriously impacting your life to the point where you can’t work, go out, become ill and even fear dying, it’s a valid starting point to understand the root of it.
CBT and talking therapies are available for this. Start by talking to your GP; phobias are a recognized condition and for many, a gradual but very carefully carried out exposure to the item of fear by a professional can be an important first step.
For my husband, his knowledge of what caused his phobia is enough. He isn’t desperate to get over his fear of eggs and doesn’t want to spend weeks and months of treatment just to potentially be ok with an egg yolk dribbling onto his bacon.
But for others, treatment is vital in order to get to a place where the phobia is not ruling their life. What can the rest of us do? Showing compassion and understanding – and never poking fun – is key. It’s a hard and embarrassing thing to confess, so don’t break a person’s confidence by waving a peeled banana under the nose of someone who is scared of them.
At the same time, you don’t have to wrap a person with a phobia in cotton wool and treat them any differently; simply be conscious of their fear and check your own actions to ensure that you are not inadvertently causing them discomfort.
Phobias are very real and sometimes we don’t know where they originate from or why they affect us so much. It’s a condition we have been programmed to underestimate, but given the mental health impacts they can lead onto, we need to all be more accepting that people can be and are terrified of things we don’t understand.