The word phobia is used in a non-medical sense for aversions of all sorts. A phobia can be linked to almost any behavior by using the suffix -phobia. However, when used in a clinical setting, many psychologists and psychiatrists classify most phobias into one of three categories:
1) Specific phobias such as fear of heights (acrophobia)
A specific phobia can develop when a person has an encounter with an object or situation that involves or provokes fear. Specific phobias fear of a single specific panic trigger such as spiders, dogs, snakes,closed-in places, heights, escalators, tunnels, highway driving, water, flying, catching a specific illness, dogs and blood. Such phobias aren't just extreme fear, they are are an extreme and irrational fear. Many of the specific phobias are extensions of fears that a lot of people have. People with these phobias specifically avoid the entity they fear. Many specific phobias can be traced back to a specific triggering event, usually a traumatic experience at an early age.
Specific phobias can be broken into one of 5 types: (1) Animal phobias. Animal phobias are fears caused by an animal or insect. Examples include fear of snakes, fear of spiders, fear of rodents, and fear of dogs: (2) Natural environment phobias. Natural environment phobias are fears cued by objects found in nature. Examples include fear of heights, fear of storms, fear of water, and fear of the dark; (3) Situational phobias. Situational phobias are fears triggered by a specific situation. Examples include fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia), fear of a specific situation such as public transportation, tunnels, bridges, elevators, flying, elevators, driving, fear of dentists or enclosed places; (4) Blood-Injection-Injury phobia. Blood-injection-injury phobia involves fear of blood, fear or injury, or a fear of shots or another medical procedure; and (5) Other phobias. This subtype should be specified if the fear is cued by other stimuli that don’t fall into one of the first four categories. Examples include fear or avoidance of situations that might lead to choking, vomiting, or contracting an illness, fear of choking, fear of injury, fear of death, "space" phobias (i.e., the individual is afraid of falling down if away from walls or other means of physical support), fears of loud sounds or of costumed characters.
2) Social phobias
A social phobia is a fear involving other people or social situations such as performance anxiety or fears of embarrassment by scrutiny of others, such as eating in public or fear of public speaking.
If you have social phobia you may be excessively self-conscious and afraid of embarrassing or humiliating yourself in front of others. The symptoms may extend to psychosomatic manifestation of physical problems. Social phobias and agoraphobia typically have a more complex cause than a specific phobia. It is believed that heredity, genetics, and brain chemistry combine with life-experiences to play a major role in the development of social phobias and agoraphobia.
Agoraphobia is a generalized fear of leaving a home or a small familiar 'safe' area, and of possible panic attacks that might follow. Traditionally thought to involve a fear of public places and open spaces, it is now believed that agoraphobia develops as a complication of panic attacks. Afraid that they may have another panic attack, people with agoraphobia become anxious about being in situations where escape would be difficult or embarrassing, or where help would not’t be immediately available. If you have agoraphobia, you are likely to avoid crowded places such as shopping malls and movie theaters. Standing in line is another situation that can be panic provoking. You may also avoid cars, airplanes, subways, and other forms of travel. In more severe cases, you might only feel safe at home. In Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), social phobia, specific phobia, and agoraphobia are sub-groups of anxiety disorder.
A few years ago another academic and I were walking with a student (“Kiki”) who said that she always handed in essay assignments two weeks after they are due — the last day before she would receive a 0. Each time she lost 20% of the total possible points due to an automatic penalty of 2% per work day late. Over the long run she was ruining her chances of going on to postgraduate study. The other academic walking with us started to tell Kiki that the university had now extended the penalty period to three weeks with a maximum penalty of 30%, but I elbowed him right away and shook my head. I knew that if Kiki heard this news she would change to submitting three weeks late and suffer an extra 10% penalty. I knew that because I understand phobias, and Kiki had one — essay-writing phobia.
This phobia involves fear and avoidance of writing an assigned essay and/or submitting the essay. In addition to lateness penalties, the avoidance can lead to last-minute writing with its attendant stress, poor quality, and low marks. This phobia is more common than you might think.
What causes essay-writing phobia? The causes are similar for all types of phobias. The main factors likely to contribute here are genetic, biological predispositions to feel anxious, perfectionism in general, setting an unrealistically high goal for the essay, low self-efficacy for writing in general or for the specific essay, and low levels of self-control. Two other possible factors: Avoidance helps the person feel much better in the short run by reducing anxiety, and avoidance with frantic last-minute writing gives the person an ego-protecting excuse for earning a low mark.
So what is the way out of essay-writing phobia? I’ll suggest 10 strategies in order of value for most individuals:
1. Change your goal to something realistic and valuable, like doing your best under the circumstances or submitting on time or ending your avoidance. Put aside goals of being perfect and impressing the heck out of someone.
2. Gradually expose yourself to what you fear. Write the easiest part of the essay first — start with your name or the title. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Then write the next easiest part and so on, all the way to submitting. Praise yourself for courage at each step. Use my favorite definition of courage: Doing the right thing even tho scared. There is a great deal of research evidence that gradual exposure helps eliminate phobias.
3. Discuss your fears with someone who cares about your welfare or write in a journal about your fears. Bringing them out in the open will help you deal with them.
4. Calm yourself thru deep breathing, meditation, or some other means.
5. Focus on the task at hand — tell yourself what to do next on the assignment. Think that you are writing a draft that you will improve later, if necessary. Positive thoughts often lead to positive behavior.
6. Challenge self-defeating thoughts such as “Ï can’t do this” by thinking clearly about what “this” is and by looking for evidence from the past about whether you can do it.
7. Think of times you have written good essays and submitted on time.
8. Think of how you overcame some fear before in your life.
9. Think of individuals you admire who acted bravely.
10. Write while naked. This change of procedure might give you a new perspective, along with a anxiety-reducing chuckle.
Those are my thoughts. For a case study describing treatment of essay-writing phobia, see http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0005796786900422.
What helps you reduce essay writing fear and avoidance?
John Malouff, PhD,
Associate Professor of Psychology