We all like to think we're regular folk, but even the most straitlaced among us has a boatload of habits that are downright peculiar. Which is as it should be. We're only human, which means we're all a little weird. As Whoopi Goldberg put it, "'Normal' is nothing more than a cycle on a washing machine." So it's a sure bet that your nutty quirk-the one you think is so freakishly unusual-is shared by plenty of other people, whether it's an addiction to lip balm (yes, there's a Lip Balm Anonymous) or peladophobia (fear of bald people).
But there's a difference between wacky and worrisome. For this year's installment of Normal or Nuts? we received a torrent of questions from readers who courageously described their various phobias, foibles, and out-there habits. And because we are here not to judge but to help, we ran the letters by a panel of experts to discern which of these behaviors are charmingly eccentric and which may require professional attention. Here's what they said.
I'm scared of flying. Let me correct that: I don't mind flying, but I can't stand being cooped up on a plane. If the doors don't open immediately after we land, I get sweaty, my heart starts pounding, and I feel like I'm going to start screaming. Traveling just isn't worth the anguish to me, but my wife is getting mad. Can anything help?
Yes--and we don't mean hefty penalties for airlines that keep planes sitting on the tarmac for hours. Your fear stems from the fact that you're not in the driver's seat, says Tom Bunn, a licensed therapist and founder of SOAR, a fear-of-flying program. "Backup systems in a plane make flying safer than driving," he says. "But these systems are in the cockpit, where they seem theoretical. They're not as real to a passenger as a steering wheel."
Your panic at your lack of control is followed by an urge to escape and run screaming toward the door. That option is blocked, too, "and that causes the feeling of claustrophobia," says Bunn. What works better than popping meds are cognitive behavioral methods, like building up your tolerance to anxiety using a flight simulator (mimicking a passenger's experience) or practicing sitting in small spaces, both best done with the help of a therapist.
"Your fears are interfering with your ability to travel and your relationship with your wife," says psychologist Sally A. Theran, PhD, of Wellesley College. Are you going to deny the poor woman her dream of standing at the foot of the Acropolis? After all she's done for you!
I hate to have my feet touch the ground. I'm fine when I'm walking, but when I have to stand still, I get this weird tense feeling in my stomach. It's worse when I'm standing near a chair-I can't think of anything but my urge to get my feet off the floor.
If you're calm only when you're walking, then for the majority of your day, you're feeling anxious--even if you're a mailman or a waiter. "Your description suggests that this is an obsession," says Michael J. Peterson, MD, a psychiatrist at the University of Wisconsin. He says people are usually able to describe an obsession as irrational or excessive ("It doesn't make sense, but …"), yet they're unable to put it out of their mind or convince themselves not to act on it. Does this sound like you?
Pulling your feet off the floor, on the other hand, sounds like a compulsion, an action you take to manage your obsessive thoughts. Compulsions often revolve around safety concerns; worry about germ contamination is a common motivator, says New York City psychologist Nando Pelusi, PhD. For you, walking is a soothing form of self-stimulation and a way to focus your fretfulness: "Doing something that causes more brain stimulation is at least less anxiety provoking than doing nothing."
If he were treating you (and treatment is not a bad idea), Pelusi says, "one assignment I might give you is to practice keeping your feet on the floor until the tense feeling goes away." Facing your anxiety will ultimately help you reverse what's become a habitual response.
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