What Scares You The Most?

Tuesday’s post on presentation techniques brought up a storm of comments about phobias and panic attacks. Below, I’ve not only given you information on the top phobias in America, I’ve also given you my own techniques for dealing with “Speaker’s Nerves.”

What is a phobia?

A phobia is a completely irrational fear. Sufferers know they are behaving oddly. But that doesn’t lessen the fear – in fact, it can make it worse.

Phobias are a subconscious reaction — logic and rationality don’t help. In short, it is a flaw in their perception of reality.

I found Tuesday’s comments interesting enough that I looked up the 10 Most Common Phobias in America. Did you know that the rest of the world fears different things than Americans? Some of the “World Top 10” — Fear of snakes, darkness, another person, dogs and the dentist — did not make the U.S. Top 10 Phobia list, which is shown below.

Here are the 10 most common phobias reported by both men and women.

1. Arachnophobia – the fear of spiders. There is no escape from these eight-legged beasts. They live in our houses, gardens, and even our places of work. True arachnophobes are even scared of pictures of spiders.

2. Social phobia – the fear of social situations. More than simple shyness. This is an extreme fear of being scrutinised by others, or humiliated by one’s own actions. This is usually where the fear of public speaking falls.

3. Aerophobia – the fear of flying. In a plane, obviously. Often paired with  claustrophobia.

4. Agoraphobia – the fear of inescapable situations. The result is anxiety and panic attacks, which can easily become self-perpetuating. Extreme agoraphobes are confined to their own home, which is the only place they consider to be safe.

5. Claustrophobia – the fear of confined spaces. Sufferers will stay well away from elevators, trains and tiny cupboards under the stairs. May cause panic attacks if escape is not possible.

6. Acrophobia – the fear of heights. Sufferers may have panic attacks and put themselves in genuine danger if they can’t get down. Often confused with vertigo – which is merely a dizzy or spinning sensation and not necessarily caused by heights.

7. Emetophobia – the fear of vomit. No one likes the sight or smell of vomit, but these sufferers will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid the stuff.

8. Carcinophobia – the fear of cancer. Although it’s not contagious, a carcinophobe will believe he has cancer because he touched someone else with the disease.

9. Brontophobia – the fear of thunderstorms. Also known as astraphobia. Child and adult sufferers alike hide away from thunder and lightning, lest they suffer panic attacks and have difficulty breathing.

10. Necrophobia – the fear of death. Derived from the fear of being buried alive, after early excavations of coffins showed scratch marks made by trapped victims. Also relates to coffins and corpses.

Which one of the above surprised you the most? For me it was #7. Fear of vomit? Huh. I can only speculate on what parents do when they have that one. Excuse me, little three week old Johnny, but you need to clean that hurlage up yourself…

Confession Time: I have a phobia.

I’ve been deathly afraid of heights since college. (Yes, I have an inciting incident for my handy-dandy phobia – #6 on the Top 10 List.)

I’m going to make y’all a deal, right here in the middle of this Thoughtful Thursday post at More Cowbell: If you give me the scoop on your phobias and irrational fears in today’s comments, I’ll tell you the whole story of why I’ve been afraid of heights since about 1989.

In the meantime, I’ll address the speaker’s nerves I talked about in Monday’s post. My fear of public speaking is somewhat strong, but it doesn’t remotely approach the panic attack
level our pal Angela described in the comments.

If you go with the phobia definition at the beginning of this post, that means my fears about public speaking are still at the conscious level where I can make decisions about them. It hasn’t grown enough to go underground and hide in my subconscious (like heights).

Below are some tricks I’ve used to help me deal with speaker’s nerves. I recommend you practice them pre-presentation and in the mirror at home.

  1. Give yourself a “nervous object” to hold in your hand – I like dry erase markers because they have a tip to press on without the noise of clicking a pen. Use your non-writing hand. This allows you to channel some of your shakes and nerves into the object. Even if you’re white-knuckling it, no one has to know because it’s down by your side.
  2. Set a focal point. Even if this is a friendly face that will smile and nod at you, it helps. Get as close to the back of the room as possible for your focal point/person.
  3. Have a glass of water handy. Sip slowly and often. Use the water as a prop to help you pause and get your nerves under control.
  4. Count your breaths. I do this for about a minute prior to most of my presentations if it’s a new environment or topic. Focusing on the counting starts to slow your breathing down.
  5. Use a podium. I used to always present at a podium at big meetings and use it like a nervous object to focus the shakiness in my voice. Pressing my hands into the podium kept them from shaking. When the hands didn’t shake, my voice didn’t either.

I’m interested to discover whether you use any of these “speaker’s nerves” tricks already…do they work for you? Do you have any phobias (and what are they)? Have you always had it, or was there a starting point that you remember? I see lots of writers fight the fear of success or a fear of failure. If you’re a writer, can you address that one too?

I hope you’re getting ready for a fabulous weekend!

About Jenny Hansen

Avid seeker of "more"...More words, more creativity, More Cowbell! An extrovert who's terribly fond of silliness. Founding blogger at Writers In The Storm (http://writersinthestormblog.com). Write on!
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30 Responses to What Scares You The Most?

  1. Gene Lempp says:

    I’m afraid of growing old in my day job. Not sure what that one is called, maybe RuttoRetirementphobia? Fun post, Jen.


  2. jamilajamison says:

    Fantastic tips on public speaking, Jenny. I got started with public speaking early — doing readings at church as a kid, speech contests in high school, that sort of thing — and I’ve really had to brush up on my presenting skills in graduate school, especially as I consider transitioning into my role as an instructor.

    I heartily agree with tips #3 and #5. When I’m nervous I almost always get dry mouth, so having a cup of water at hand is essential. And I do love having a podium at hand, though I am trying to learn not to anchored to it, particularly when I’m in a classroom setting, as students seem to appreciate it when instructors move around a bit. (I also ended up speaking at a university function where I found that the podium was CLEAR, which meant that I had to be extra careful of maintaining my posture. Ugh.)

    As for phobias, I think I may have a mild form of brontophobia. I can count the number of thunderstorms I’ve experienced on one hand (they’re not too common on the west coast, it seems), and they were so terrifying that I was huddled in the corner, praying for it to be over.


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Hey Jamila (I always want to call you “Jam” BTW…)!

      I’ll have to make sure Baby Girl gets up and talks at church – thanks for letting me know about that one. I did some singing in the choir as a child, but that’s about it. I always hated book reports, etc in school too.

      I completely understand the nerves with the clear podium, especially in a new auditorium. That’s where your first thought is “Whoa!” Usually followed by, “Holy” and “crap!”

      I like thunderstorms but I’m terrified of tornadoes. (The Midwest had lots of both of those during my 6 years living there.) Tornadoes are freaky.


  3. Today, I PROMISED myself I would NOT be a COWBELL comment hog. And, there you go, Jenny. Bring up a topic I connect with. PLUS, it was PEANUTS’ Lucy’s voice (of “The Dr. Is Real IN” Charlie Brown Christmas scene) reading the list. Cracks me up.

    We’ve already discussed speaker’s nerves (great tips, btw). Mine started when I felt I was the frumpiest kid in HS speech class. An I-am-too-cute-for-my-cheerleader-socks blonde gave a speech before mine on grooming. One of her points? Girls who don’t take time to properly fix their hair, and just tuck it behind their ears. Wanna’ guess how my mousy brown hair was fixed that day? The jitters ended when I no longer HAD to do it as part of my job. In retrospect, I suspect those jitters came from self-esteem issues.

    My BIGGIE is Acrophobia. Can’t even look at my hubby when he’s high up on a ladder. Toes and fingers tingle, cold sweat, lot’s of “HURRY UPs! and NO! I will not climb up there to hand you the hammer.”

    I get nervous in elevators. Don’t PUT me in one with a panoramic view! ACK attack! I went through a period of panic attacks on escalators. No clue where the fear came FROM, or why it left. My worst case was on the loooooooong, interminably looooooong escalator to a MARTA commuter train with NO ONE in front of me. Difficulty breathing, feeling as if I was falling foward, sweating, talking to myself. Got off at the bottom, took an elevator (one without a view) to street level and grabbed a cab. Good to know we aren’t alone with our phobias.


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Gloria, you’re so funny. You’re not a hog.

      My fear of heights (acrophobia) is mostly a fear of falling, I think. Ladders make me beyond nervous but, as long as I’m not looking out over the edge of that panoramic view elevator, I kind of like those.

      Steep staircases and escalators get me too. I’ve got to hold on with a death grip to get through the ride. You’re so not alone on this one.


      • And, NOW, I’ve gotta get back on that MARTA escalator. But, I’ll put Sherry in front of me on the escalator. We’re going to Atlanta for the MAGGIE awards banquet. EEE!!


  4. Stacy Green says:

    I have a big fear of death. It’s not about being buried alive as much as it is being nothing. Everything just ending. I can’t fathom it, and yet every once in a while I get this moment of clarity that takes my breath away.

    I have some claustrophobia, too. When I was in labor, they wanted to put an oxygen mask on me and I couldn’t handle it. Hubs had to hold it and give it to me at intervals.

    Spiders I can deal with. It’s cockroaches I can’t stand. Instant gag reflux. Is there a phobia for that?

    Great post, Jenny!


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Hey, Stacy!

      Since I loathe cockroaches too and get the heebie-jeebies to thinking about them in my house or on my person, I looked this one up and it’s called Katsaridaphobia. Here’s a link on the official names for all the “pest” phobias: http://www.rentokil.com/blog/phobias-pest-fears-and-their-scientific-names/

      Incidentally, the thing that freaked me when I was pregs and delivering was passing out. When you lay on your back, the weight of the baby cuts off blood flow for some artery I can’t remember the name of. So, during ultrasounds and monitoring, then again in the operating room during the C-section, I kept freaking out that I was going to hurl or pass out. It wasn’t pretty…


      • Stacy Green says:

        Wow, thanks for doing the research. Why are all the phobia names so hard to pronounce, lol?

        I didn’t know that about the artery thing, or I’ve forgotten. I was afraid of pooping during labor, lol. My friend did it with both kids. Thankfully I didn’t!


        • Jenny Hansen says:

          ROFLMAO, Stacy!!! Everyone’s afraid of doing THAT during labor. The key is to just tell the nurses not to tell you if it happens. What you don’t know really doesn’t hurt you in this case. 🙂


  5. wosushi says:

    I used to have anxiety attacks if I felt trapped. Large crowds in a building, getting on a monorail in Vegas, things like that.

    Not so much I love you.

    I am one of those weird folk that doesn’t mind the public speaking. I use to teach computer application classes, which meant keeping a room full of bored folks attention for an entire day. The “object in the hand” was a great way to stay calm. Dry erase marker, laser pointer, koosh ball; anything to give me focus. I did some presentations for Microsoft as well, in front of really large groups – that was more nerve wracking. Bottle of water suggestion is key there. Nerves lead to dry mouth which leads to more nerves. 🙂


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I don’t like being hemmed in a big crowd, but for some reason the surge of people getting on and off public transport never bother me. I guess because I know which way they’re gooing to move.

      LOL on the “room full of bored folks” comment. As a long-time corporate trainer, this just cracks me up. I’ve used a lot of koosh balls through the years too. And candy! I almost always give out candy. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing! You and I would have a fine time doing a computer talk at a conference, I can tell!


  6. I’m not at all surprised by the list. I possess many of them! #1, 3, 4, 5 (4 and 5 go together in my opinion), 6, and 9 (Big Time). I have many problems….so, for the most part, I have a fear of not being in control. I can’t control a spider, other than kill it; I can’t control a plan because I’m not a pilot (I always have to drive when we leave the house….); I can’t control mother nature, and I have a prescription to help me out with that one when a storm rolls in; About the only ones I can control are not climing to high-heights and not getting myself into a tight crowd, which I do my very best to avoid.

    So, there you have it – I’m a control freak. Isn’t that what it realy boils down to?


    • Jenny Hansen says:


      I read this comment on my phone the first time and LMAO at the control freak comment. I firmly believe that most writers are control freaks (you gotta be to put all that’s required into the book).

      It sounds like you work around most of the phobias. And, not having #2 puts you light years ahead of a lot of people. 🙂


  7. Fear of heights and of flying–maybe they go together? My dad always had fear of heights, would stop the car at bridges and trade places so Mom drove over. Maybe that’s part of why I don’t like ’em. I’ve gotten better with both because I can avoid heights and HAD to fly a lot for a job. Reading on the plane or sleeping helps. Just as long as there’s not turbulence or (horrors!) a thunderstorm while on the plane–PURE PANIC!


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Wow on your dad and the bridge. I don’t think I would have thought of that. Now, mind you, I’m not a big fan of stopping and getting out of the car and looking over the side of the bridge. Driving over it doesn’t bother me that much though.

      Good for you on getting over your fear of flying! That means you get to go to cool events like Thrillerfest! I’m loving what you’re up to on your blog regarding Thrillerfest. 🙂


  8. K.B. Owen says:

    Hi, Jenny! Love the list; helps me feel less neurotic. Although I thought Brontophobia was a fear of Brontosauruses – or maybe Charlotte Bronte? LOL.

    LIke you, my phobia has always been heights, so I was really worried when we were planning to take the zipline canopy tour on our vacation last week. Even thinking about it ahead of time, I thought I was going to die. Other times, I worried that something would happen to my youngest (10 yrs old). Still other times, I worried that I’d get stuck in the middle of the zipline over a canyon and have to pee. (I worry about weird things like that: during my first mammogram, I worried about what would happen if there was a fire and the electricity blew out while I was welded to the dang thing. Okay, enough weirdness. I digress).

    I did the zipline anyway, and I’m so glad! It was amazing, and I got over my fear very quickly. This time. It also would have been bad to chicken out in front of my kids. 🙂


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      That is soooo funny, Kathy. I totally thought it would be dinosaurs when I saw that too. LOL. BTW, we’re writers…we’re supposed to worry about weird things. Other people call it imagination but we all know the truth.

      Go you on the ziplining!

      My big fear is that I’m afraid of falling to my death – it is completely irrational (story coming next week since I promised). My stomach pitches and I start to feel faint. My husband loves to see my reaction when he goes out on a top story balcony and leans over. I love the view but I can’t enjoy it unless I literally tie myself to the sliding door or something inside the hotel room. I really have to KNOW that I can’t fall. It’s weird.

      All that being said, I think I’d zipline if I had stats about safety and was somewhere really cool (where large bugs wouldn’t fall on my head). In other words, if I was reasonably sure I would not plummet to a splatty death. Hell, I’d even consider skydiving if the instructor strapped themselves to me (and checked the parachute like four times) – I know they wouldn’t let themselves die.


  9. Oh, I hate the cockroaches, too. Social phobia is a big one for me as said yesterday but if I had to choose between giving a presentation and having a cockroach near me? Where’s the podium because I’m ready to rock and roll. In fact I’ve said that if someone were torturing me for information all they would have to do is mention a cockroach and I’d roll over right then. It’s awful but true.

    If I vomit when I clean up vomit does that count as a phobia? I’m not allowed to clean up after someone else because then there’s two messes my husband gets stuck with. Yuk. Poor guy. Lol. Maybe all these years when I’ve been accused of having a weak stomach it’s been a phobia. It doesn’t take much to get me going. Just mention certain topics and I’m done. My son in law loves to try and bring them up just so he can watch me gag then my daughter puts a gag in his mouth.


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I shouldn’t laugh that cockroaches can push you to the podium….OK, I laughed. I couldn’t help it.

      I grew up around nurses who talked about all sorts of SUBJECTS at the dinner table so I don’t have an auditory weak stomach, just a visual/olfactory one. I have a friend like you though – and she has three boys – and if I forget myself and admire a really cool scab at the table, she’s pretty much done eating. I think there are lots of people like the two of you.

      It does surprise me to hear you say that because I thought you lived on a farm. I can’t imagine doing that with a weak tummy – my image is that farmers and ranchers have iron side tummies. See what happens when I assume!


  10. OK, then, I have confirmation that I have failed as a first-time blogger! I wrote a tasty little response yesterday (at your personal invitation!) to your wonderfully helpful post about speaking, but I find that it is not HERE. It is lost in cyberspace, I guess. This feels a bit like not saving my story to the hard drive and then looking for it two days later….

    In a nutshell, my response to speaker’s nerves is to do the boy scout thing: be prepared. Still, that doesn’t always prevent the jitters. After 18-odd years of speaking and teaching, two years of which were as president and board member of OCC/RWA when members and visitors counted nearly 200 on a monthly basis–in July I got a case of shaky voice just having to stand in front of the group and announce my fall writing course at UCI Extension. (For those interested: “Beginning Your Novel or Short Story,” 10 weeks Sept 22-Dec 1, 2011)

    I’m hoping this recent case of nerves will calm down, because I’m the morning speaker at the September meeting (doing a guided short story writing hour) and will also host “Plotting in Pajamas” in October for the organization’s 30th Anniversary Birthday Bash. Jenny’s blog got me thinking about the nervousness, and I like the tip to do some conscious breathing before taking the mic. Even more than “be prepared,” and “breathing,” I think what will get me through these new speaking engagements is to try from the heart to give something of value.


    • Jenny Hansen says:


      You’re gonna be great! I’ve already made my hotel reservations for the October meeting! Whenever I’ve been out of the classroom for a while, I get nerves the first time I go back in. It’s just part of the program for me.

      p.s. You have not failed as a blogger. We all have comments disappear here and there (though it’s usually Blogger that I fight with). Just roll with it – you’re doing fine. 🙂


  11. Hmmm… I did have a lot of phobias. I used to fear driving (after a car accident in the freeway where I totalled my car and miraculously escaped unscathed). It was so bad that I’d rather take the bus than go to the freeway. Learned how to deal with it since I’m using the freeway all the time now.

    Fear of heights… I’m not overly panicked with that but it was scary to look down. Still, I’d managed to go skydiving–the ultimate thing someone who’s afraid of heights could do.

    I had fear of people. I’m still shy but not as bad as before. Before, I’d rather not be around people; I felt numb everytime a stranger approached me within a five foot radius. Now, I could talk to people more. Still working on expanding my social skills but I’m getting there.

    My point was, I’ve been afraid of a lot of things, yet with time, I managed to find ways to overcome them. It takes little steps and a lot of practice. You don’t need to get over it all at once. Start with a small audience and do it every week. It might take a while to overcome your fear but just keep working at it. Then, when you’re comfortable with a smaller-sized one, do a medium sized one. Before you know it, you overcome your fear.


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Marilag, this is awesome! It is so hard to overcome fear, especially after something as traumatic as a car crash. I hope you’re proud of yourself for your bravery because I sure am. 🙂


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