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Delving into the world of peculiar phobias, from whales to buttons

While specific phobias can often be debilitating, experts say the good news is they can almost always be treated.

When Khloe Kardashian revealed her phobia of whales in the latest season of The Kardashians, I must say, I had a little chuckle. Although I nearly immediately felt guilty about laughing at someone’s fear, it seems that I wasn’t the only one who did, with the star revealing that her daughter, True Thompson (aged five) draws her whale pictures just to scare her.

“My daughter bullies me,“ Khloe said in a confessional from the show. „She draws me photos of whales just to f–k with me. And she thinks it’s so funny.”

After the episode, Khloe disclosed on social media platform X that her sisters also often poke fun at her phobia by sending her whale videos, which in turn initiated an onslaught of whale messages from fans on the platform.

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„This has been a phobia of mine for years. I don’t want anything bad to happen to whales and I know the phobia is totally irrational, but we don’t pick our phobias,“ she posted in response. 

And Khloe has a very legitimate point. You don’t choose to have a phobia.

As psychologist and clinical director of Sydney Phobia Clinic, Dr Corrie Ackland points out, a phobia, regardless of how ‘weird’ it is, can be quite debilitating.

 “A phobia is a fear and anxious apprehension about a specific object, animal, or situation that is unreasonable, illogical, or excessive and that begins to interfere with someone’s life due to the significant distress they feel about it or the extent to which it impairs their functioning at work, home, or in their social/leisure activities,” she explains.

Kardashian’s whale phobia is an example of a specific animal phobia and while it would most likely relate to being in the water with a whale, Dr Ackland says it isn’t always specific to this.

“Animal phobias typically generalise to all representations of the animals, so you may also feel anxious and be inclined to avoid pictures, photos, videos, movies, and conversations about whales, as well as whales in enclosures such as if they were at a zoo.”

The phobia can become so intense that, as Khloe revealed, someone with this phobia can avoid oceans, or other waterways, even on boats.

“You may spend time researching areas to make sure there won’t be whales there before feeling comfortable to visit- such as beaches or holiday destinations. As a result, the phobia may begin to impact your life because of refusal to participate in holidays and leisure activities that others want to undertake,” Dr Ackland explains.

But aside from specific animal phobias, there are many other unusual phobias out there. Dr Ackland says that people can develop a phobia of anything at all.

“Ones that might be more unusual and that we come across in the clinic are food phobias, vomit phobias, balloon phobias, button phobias and hair phobias.” 

While phobias stem from different objects or things, they generally manifest in similar ways- illogical, obsessive and irrational thoughts and physical symptoms like a faster heart rate, nausea, sweating, dryness in your mouth, abnormal breathing and feeling dizzy.

“If a particular situation seems to trigger anxiety to the point of being unable to participate normally or at all (avoidance), is associated with unreasonable worry in advance, or the use of unnecessary ‚coping‘ strategies, you may have a phobia,” Dr Ackland says.  

Past incidents or trauma; learned experiences from family or significant role models growing up; long-term stress and genetic factors can all play a role in the development of phobias but sometimes there is no clear reason why one starts.

The good news is that regardless of the specific phobia, they can nearly always be treated.

“The most evidence-backed treatment for phobias is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is also the most effective treatment for all anxiety disorders,” says Dr Ackland.

“The most important component of CBT is exposure. Exposure is broadly about exposing yourself gradually and systematically to all the things that are avoided, or anxiety-provoking associated with the phobia to learn that these things are safe and so, in turn, the anxiety around them will resolve.” 

You can start this yourself, Dr Ackland says, by making a list of all the things that are anxiety-provoking and start practising them one by one from easiest to hardest.

“If that is tricky to do, that’s when you might reach out to a psychologist to better understand why the phobia has developed and what might be getting in the way of exposure efforts improving things. Psychologists also may be able to teach some anxiety management strategies to support exposure.”

So, with all that in mind, apologies Khloe for laughing at your expense and feel rest assured that there will be no whale DMs from me.

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