Understanding other people's fears and anxieties is a tough task, particularly when you don't personally identify with them.
But we need to start trying. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million people nationwide. Social anxiety and specific phobias (like those of confined spaces, high bridges, and clowns) fall under this category, and can have a significant impact on people's day-to-day lives.
Slovenia-based fashion design graduate Petra Švajger suffers from four different phobias. For a recent school project, she was asked to create a self-portrait that would reflect on her psyche, so Švajger chose to embrace her anxieties and created a series of playful animated GIFs that might help people better understand.
Thalassophobia, fear of the sea.
According to Anxiety and Depression Association of America, "while some phobias develop in childhood, most seem to arise unexpectedly, usually during adolescence or early adulthood."
Švajger told A+ that she doesn't remember the specific moment when she discovered she was thalassophobic — her fear of the sea kind of grew on her.
"I used to love the sea and to swim and dive in it, but now I really have trouble going in the water. The fear started growing slowly to the point when I panicked every time I went for a swim."
She further explained that thalassophobes are not afraid of the sea, per se. It's the intimidation of large waves, being far from the land and the vast emptiness that scares them. The possibility of encountering mysterious sea creatures can also factor in.
Nyctophobia, fear of the dark.
"As for nyctophobia, I remember vividly when it started," Švajger said of her fear of the dark. When she was eight years old, a teacher told her classmates they could ask her anything they liked.
"Do ghosts exist?" her classmates asked.
"The teacher told us they do. Not only that — she said they can also read our thoughts and look at us when we sleep. I remember going to bed that night and my imagination just went wild. It was the first of many nights that I couldn't sleep peacefully, and, even though now I know she was fantasizing, the fear and the feeling sticks with me when the lights go out."
Although nyctophobia is mostly common in children, many people continue to be affected by it even as they grow older. The phobia makes you feel nervous in any dark environment and reluctant to go out at night. Rooted fear of the dark can really get in a way of your normal, everyday life.
Cynophobia, fear of dogs.
Petra said she doesn't mind the small dogs, but feels uneasy among bigger ones. Her phobia comes from an early age experience when she was attacked by a neighbor's dog.
"She used to have a really big dog, I think it was a doberman or a Great Dane. I was 6 at the time, so I can't really remember. I recall one day coming home and the dog got loose, jumped on me, knocked me down to the floor and growled in my face till my dad pulled it away."
Social anxiety is a serious disorder that can severely damage the lives of those suffering from it. Per the ADAA, approximately 15 million Americans are affected by the disorder, and, even though they understand the fear is unreasonable, they "feel powerless against their anxiety."
Social anxiety symptoms include fear of judgement, extreme shyness, isolation and often interfere with a person's daily life: interacting with friends, colleagues, completing school, meeting new people, getting a job, having romantic relationships, etc.
Švajger told A+ that her social anxiety arose after being bullied at school and has made it hard for her to meet new people ever since.
"I always tried so hard to fit in but the bullies would always put me down. They made me feel very insecure about myself. I thought it would stop once I get to high school and get a fresh start, but it didn't, so this is why my fear of meeting new people started to grow."
According to Švajger, she didn't want to address her fears in a grim way. She wanted, instead, to emphasize the perceived silliness of them, and approach them lightheartedly. But Švajger still has to find ways of coping, and her methods can be limiting, and even expensive.
"When I go for a swim I go in the water slowly and stick around my 'safe place.' Sometimes, when I go into deeper water and start to panic, I just go back and calm myself down. As for the fear or darkness, all of the lights in my apartment are constantly on till the moment I go to sleep."
According to the artist, making this series helped her to cope with her fears and insecurities: "Once I put my fears on paper they just seemed so silly. They didn't go away, but the GIFs are a great reminder that it's all just a result of my imagination."
You can also visit the Social Anxiety Institute website to find more information and help resources.
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