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Why You Should Never Make Fun of Someone With a Phobia

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Most of my friends are aware I am terrified of moths. Yes, moths. It is not uncommon after learning this not so great fact about my anxiety for people to either laugh, tease or even try to confront me with moths.

I’m not upset with any friends who have done this in the past. I can recognize it is difficult to empathize with something you can’t fully understand. However, I believe it is important for everyone to strive to be compassionate toward others and to develop an understanding of mental illnesses. I admittedly don’t know much about phobias in a scholarly sense, but I am definitely qualified to testify my own personal experiences of my phobia.

Firstly, I’d like to go through some myths and misconceptions I have come across regarding my phobia:

1. “Moths won’t hurt you!”

Oh, cool, thanks. I had no idea; that philosophical insight has now decreased my anxiety levels and I am cured of my phobia.

Here’s a fun fact – phobias irrationally exaggerate danger. I am fully mentally aware that I am in no danger when there is a moth in the room, but my body reacts uncontrollably as I am triggered into feeling frightened, uncomfortable and anxious.

Also, people don’t only feel fear when they are threatened with being hurt. I personally feel fear when I think I’ve upset someone, or when things in my life are uncertain. Do you know what else is uncertain? Moths. One second they’re across the room on a wall, next second they’re flying in my face. The threat of that uncertainty is terrifying for me.

2. “I’m scared of ______, I know exactly how you feel.”

It is true that everyone is afraid of something. Fear is a normal and good aspect of humanity and it helps us to protect ourselves; without it, we wouldn’t have seatbelts or stair railings. However, just because you are scared of something, that doesn’t mean you have a phobia.

I feel as though our society uses the term “phobia” as a synonym of “fear.” I am telling you now that they are different things.

The definition of fear is: “An unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm.”

The definition of phobia is: “An extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.”

If you’d like to read more on the differences between having fear and having a phobia, the Beyond Blue website is informative and easy to read.

Pro tip: Even others who have a phobia of moths don’t know exactly how I feel. Everyone has different triggers, coping mechanisms and experiences with phobias. Before you console anyone by relating to their situation, whether they have a mental illness or not, ask yourself the question: “Do I really know exactly how they feel?” A good way to be supportive when you can relate to the situation would be to say something like: “I don’t know exactly what you’re feeling, but I’ve experienced a similar situation and I felt ____.”

Please apply this. I find it way more comforting than people assuming they know exactly how I feel.

3. “You’re overreacting.”

Only some people have ever told me I’m overreacting when I’m triggered, but I do get the impression that it’s a pretty common misconception with phobias.
If you have ever thought that I or another person with a phobia has been overreacting, please consider these things:

Why would I want to draw attention to myself in a public area? (Seriously, a lot of my fear comes from being embarrassed by my reaction to moths. It is so awkward and embarrassing to be in a room full of people I may not even know and start screaming/running out the door/hiding under tables etc.)

Why would I force myself to hyperventilate or verge on panic attack? (These are pretty usual reactions, which can appear to be overreacting. Ask anyone who has ever felt this anxious and they will confirm that no one would force themselves to feel that anxious. I would hate for anyone to feel this surge of anxiety; I am definitely not overreacting.)

4. “Your reaction to moths is bizarre and I find this hilarious.”

I understand when something abnormal occurs, our first reaction can be to laugh. I have laughed at people falling over way too often, but it’s never malicious; it’s just because it’s unexpected and I don’t know how to react.

Something I don’t understand is how people who have been made aware of my phobia find it humorous to antagonise me with GIFs of moths, videos of moths, pictures of moths or even moths themselves. I usually assess this as ignorance and try not to take it personally, but please imagine how this would feel for me. Here is a general example of what this would look like:

I get a message from a friend, they are aware of my phobia. I open the message and see a GIF of a moth. I immediately exit the message without replying – I feel nervous, tense, anxious and disgusted about the GIF. I also feel embarrassed, awkward and annoyed at the friend.

Their intention wasn’t to make me feel this way — they just wanted to tease me. I am all for a bit of banter in friendships, but friends, please remember: mental illnesses are not a joke.

I would like to finish by clarifying that if you have ever made fun of my phobia, I’m not mad at you. This subject is not explained well at all in our society, so I hope this rant can be an informative insight into what having a phobia can feel like and how to best support friends who are struggling with something similar. Again, Beyond Blue has accurate and easy to read information regarding a large variety of mental illnesses, and if you think you may have a phobia/anxiety, there is no harm at all in seeing a health professional.

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Thinkstock photo via Punkbarby

Originally published: June 26, 2017
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