A visit to Dorrigo National Park a few years ago introduced me to leeches sucking my blood. When I saw them on me I was so alarmed that I pried them off and tried to run over them with my car.
Later I topped that reaction one evening in my home town, Armidale, NSW Australia. As I walked down a street, I noticed something dark moving just behind me to my left. Startled, I looked harder and prepared myself in an instant for a struggle. Then I realized that I was looking at my own moon shadow. Yes, I was scared of my own shadow. A few steps later I started singing Cat Stephens’ “Moonshadow.”
A family member of mine fears going on escalators. A friend fears contamination by germs. I have treated clients with great fears of specific objects: spiders, snakes, frogs. Fear becomes a problem when it persists despite greatly exceeding actual risk.
Scary events can produce great lasting fear. I have treated women who became extremely fearful after being sexually assaulted. I assessed a seriously burned boy who had flashbacks of being on fire.
A neurotic predisposition can also contribute to lasting fear. Some babies are easily startled. As children they become distressed at small events. As teens, they feel anxious in social situations and in any situation where they might fail.
Fear, although unpleasant, has value in certain situations, such as when we are driving too fast or being chased by an angry dog. Fear can be life-preserving.
Recently, a client came to me for treatment for leech phobia. My treatment: I would gradually expose him to leeches, starting with photos and videos and ending with an actual leech gorging on his blood. In doing exposure trials, I always experience the feared stimulus prior to asking the client to. In this case I planned to put a leech on my foot and then let it gorge and fall off. I overcame my own disgust and fear by reading about leeches. They generally are not dangerous.
A university technician found a leech for me, I put in on my foot during a therapy session, and I waited, thinking of myself as the bravest person on earth. Then I waited more. Finally, the client pointed out to me that the leech had perished on my foot. I still do not know its cause of death. My fear of leeches was gone. I never saw the client again, so I do not know whether our leech adventure had lasting effects other than on me and the leech.