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Lots to Fear Here Besides Fear Itself, but There’s Relief

Times Staff Writer

The feeling washes over me every time I hear of an airplane crash or even a near-collision. “I’m never going to fly again,” I tell myself as my mind replays the video of the latest airline disaster. “I can’t cope with being 30,000 feet above the ground anymore.”

Of course, I know the statistics show that flying is safer than driving. I also know that the odds are overwhelmingly against anybody in the Southland dying in an earthquake, but that it does not stop me from worrying, either. And what about all those crazy drivers who weave in and out of freeway traffic, missing my bumper by about six inches? That makes me nervous too.

Yes, I am phobic, defined as having an irrational, excessive and persistent fear of some particular thing or situation. And before you start laughing, is there anybody out there afraid of heights? How about snakes or dogs? Thunderstorms?

Turns out that nearly 15% of Americans harbor some kind of phobia during a lifetime, ranging from absolute avoidance of people to nervousness about elevators, according to a 1988 study by the National Institute of Mental Health. There is even a Phobia Society of America, which has 7,000 members.

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My phobias have worsened since I moved to Long Beach about two years ago, and I secretly blamed California in part. Irrational? Maybe not, said Tustin psychologist Jerry Kasdorf, co-owner of Phobia Care Treatment Center.

People are more susceptible to phobias when they feel unstable or alone, Kasdorf said. And few things are as unsettling as a solo move across the country to an enormous metropolitan area such as Los Angeles, he said.

“Southern California is very mobile,” Kasdorf said. “There isn’t a great sense of stability in terms of a support system. The more alienated you feel from the population as a whole, the more alone you feel.”

I also think there is a general level of madness here that makes people nervous, from constant traffic struggles to sewage spills, to air so polluted that spotting mountains on the horizon is a cause to rejoice.

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Kasdorf agreed, noting that “if your car breaks down in Southern California and somebody stops to help, you worry about who’s going to get out of that other car.”

What’s the answer? Kasdorf advised those afraid to inject a degree of control into a phobia. A phobic has to face the problem situation and find a way to work through it.

He counsels his “fear of flying” clients to research the subject to find out which airlines have the best safety records. Fly out of an airport with less traffic than Los Angeles International. Choose a specific airline and ask for a particular seat.

A disaster preparedness plan can help those who fear earthquakes, he said. Having emergency supplies at home, the office and in cars provides some sense of security.

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As for freeway anxiety, he recommended driving a stable car and staying in the traffic lanes that produce the least nervousness.

“Most people will worry about things,” Kasdorf said, “but they won’t take steps to take care of the things they’re worried about.”

And if you’re not careful, some phobias can change your life. Some who suffer from agoraphobia, or fear of open spaces, allow their condition to advance to the point where leaving the house is unthinkable.

Earlier this year, I decided against vacationing in Hawaii because it involved a plane flight. But I agreed, amid some nail-biting, to take a plane trip next month. I know I’ll spend much of the flight listening for suspicious engine noises, but at least I’m going.

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