Fredric Neuman M.D.

Fighting Fear

Chicken Phobias and Other Matters of Concern

A demand for quick thinking

Posted Sep 11, 2016

The Anxiety and Phobia Clinic that I direct has seen over 4,000 patients during the 43 years of its existence. There are individuals with a specific phobia, such as snakes or dogs, or birds, or bees. These fears are not usually very troublesome since they do not spread to other objects or circumstances. Still, on occasion they can be severe. I remember a woman who could not leave her home because she feared encountering a snake, despite the fact that she was living in a suburban area where there were no snakes. A bee phobia can be so severe that outdoor activities become impossible.

The most common phobia we treat, however, and the most severe, is agoraphobia. Agoraphobia usually results from a panic disorder. The phobic person feels trapped in certain situations where a panic attack seems possible. Since panic attacks can happen anywhere, the situations that have to be avoided tend to multiply. Someone may start off being afraid of bridges or tunnels or airplanes, and then start avoiding restaurants, movie theaters, church, shopping centers, sports arenas—and so on. Even waiting on line in a bank may become threatening. Some people quickly become housebound—potentially for years. Claustrophobia, an example of which is the fear of getting stuck in an elevator, is just another presentation of agoraphobia.

It is startling at first to discover that so many different people are afraid of the same thing—throwing up in a restaurant, for instance. Others are afraid of losing control and screaming in a classroom. Even so, there are also other, more uncommon, phobias. For instance, there are some men and women, but children, especially, who are afraid of clowns. Some children, and adults also, are afraid of thunder, others are afraid of seeing blood. And there are still others who have rare and usually inexplicable fears. I have seen at least two patients who were afraid of looking up at tall buildings. I remember another woman who was afraid of statues.

“Afraid of the statue falling on you?” I asked.

“No, I’m just afraid of the statue.”

Having seen all of these patients over the years, I have always thought that I could speak sensibly about phobias. But I had a disquieting experience a number of years ago when I was promoting my book on the treatment of phobias, Fighting Fear. I was appearing one morning on a national radio program. I began to talk about phobias, and I gave examples. The person interviewing me spoke in turn of his own phobia. It seems to me that everyone who has ever interviewed me on radio or television wanted to mention his or her own particular phobia. Phobias are common. Then, just before the program closed, the announcer welcomed questions from the listening audience. I don’t remember the first two questions, except that the announcer indicated with a hand gesture that I had to give a quicker answer. We were running out of time. The last question came from a woman in Ohio. She wanted to know how I would treat a chicken phobia. There was no time to ask the obvious question: Was this woman afraid of being attacked by a chicken or was she afraid of eating chicken?  I stared at the announcer, mute. I looked at him and he looked at me.

In order to explain my sudden inability to talk, I have to report a prior experience on live radio—when I was 9 years old. I was supposed to perform on the piano in front of a live audience. The announcer cued me to begin playing; but I had forgotten the piece. He cued me again, and then, frantically, again. I looked out into the audience and saw my mother shrinking into her seat. Finally, after about thirty seconds of dead time, a long, long time on radio, I remembered how to begin the piece.

Suddenly, confronting the urgent request to help this woman with her chicken phobia, I was once again unable to begin. I mumbled some sort of generic answer about “confrontation,” or something similar, then the program ended and I left the studio.

I walked distractedly along the street, my mind racing through pictures of this anonymous woman from somewhere in Ohio being pursued by a chicken. I imagined a dusty road with rocks on it. Suddenly, in my imagination the woman stumbles and is set upon the chicken who is cackling, like chickens do, I am told, and attempting to pick her eyes out. Maybe she was especially vulnerable because she had been traumatized as a child by seeing a chicken running around after its head had been cut off, which they can do, I am told. Being brought up on 104th street and Amsterdam Avenue, I had a very primitive view of life on a farm.

Or was it a poisoned chicken, one which hadn’t been cleaned properly before being eaten? That sort of thing can leave you sensitive to eating turkey, let alone another chicken.

I have never been able to resolve the problem of what a chicken phobia is, let along how to treat it. I ask patients all the time, “If you had a chicken phobia, what exactly would you be afraid of?” but they do not have a sensible answer either.

© Fredric Neuman

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P.S. In order to guarantee accuracy, I have written ahead of time my own obituary.