Looking for a type of phobia that results in fight rather than flight.
August 14, 2013 8:53 AM   Subscribe

If you have, say a spider phobia, are you the "Run away!!" type of phobic or the "OMG SMASH SMASH SMASH HIT IT WITH A BOOK TURN OVER THE TABLE SET THE HOUSE ON FIRE... is it dead?" type? Is there a term or specific type of phobia for the second option?

This is actually for a story... I have a big tough muscular barbarian guy, who does the typical fantasy hero thing of wading through hordes of giant spiders, hacking through them with a berserk fury... but his secret shame is that his berserker rage stems from the fact that he is utterly terrified of spiders. (and snakes, and little scrabbly goblins, and so forth...)

Somehow, his type of phobia manifests more as wild hacking and flailing to kill kill kill the thing, rather than the more sensible option of running away, and he's become a barbarian hero because now people expect it of him, and rather than admit he's actually really scared, he's gone along with it.

What I want to know is, is this a specific type of phobia, or another affliction altogether? Is there a word for this type of phobia response? are there any more psychobabble terms I can throw in here?

"Lars" and I both thank you in advance. :)
posted by The otter lady to Science & Nature (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you're describing the "fight" part of the "fight-or-flight" response.
posted by dismas at 9:02 AM on August 14, 2013

Speaking as a reader of fantasy-type stuff, it always jars me a little when I see technical words that wouldn't make sense in a totally different world that has goblins and the like. I'd appreciate more if you just made something up that's specific to your world, e.g., "I went to a physicker once, and he said I have Endoricon's Bane -- that's like a fear, but it makes me want to kill stuff instead of run away."
posted by Etrigan at 9:08 AM on August 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

Berserker might work here
posted by Jacen at 10:09 AM on August 14, 2013

I think reaction formation, which is a type of defense mechanism, might be closer to what you want, but someone with more Freud knowledge than I might need to weigh in.

Phobias almost by definition require avoidance.
posted by jaguar at 10:21 AM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thinking and reading on it more, reaction formation or any defense mechanisms, at least in traditional terminology, are unconscious, so if Lars is aware of his own fear, then that wouldn't be the right term, from a psychology point of view. It's used pretty often that way in pop-psych, though.
posted by jaguar at 10:29 AM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Psycho anything doesn't really fit here. The difference between a regular person and a berserker is what happens during a *violent* OMG RUN event. Most people run away, some are trained to run towards the trouble, and then there are meatheads like me who not only rush in but stop for nothing short of scaring the crap out of, tackling, body slamming, and then hog tying the threat (wish I were joking - I'll get shot before I get close). There's no thinking going on at all though. It's all hormone based (systemic histamines, serotonin, and insulin + normal fight or flight ones). The berserkergang/riastrad, or at least my form of it, is a route response as such. If there is no one to tackle I'm literally left sitting there wondering what my target is and will go find food if none presents itself (insulin sucks like that). And no, I've never been too far down either path thankfully. I've only seen bits and pieces of this in various situations that I've mistaken at first, or where the response can be forestalled by diplomacy (my masters degree). Thankfully, we just don't live in the berserker world anymore.

As someone with a phobia of spiders as well, I would make an immediate "threat or not" decision and will leap backwards if not a threat, but attack if a threat. Threat identification (which comes prior to berserkergang/riastrad) is the main component of that, and I believe what is off in my phobia. As such, I've trained myself to allow harvestmen in our basement, and wolf spiders outside of my car, because they are hella useful (thank you MeFi). I've also worked on my response because spiders are tiny enough, and not poisonous where I am, so I don't get the full response that marked berserkers back in the day and instead am just engaging in a chore of sorts. There's usually time to grab a tissue first too, and I'm getting better at the whole "grab a glass and an index card and release humanely outside" trick. For comparison, the lone time I saw a black widow (free loaded in some veggies) I jumped up, stomped it, and then realized I'd sprung just about every muscle in the leg I used to stomp it with... and wanted a sandwich. That's just a regular flight/fight response though. A spider would need to be much larger to qualify for OMG RUN.

So your character is going need big foes to get that massive release of hormones from a flight or fight response, but also get more from the berserkergang/riastrad response at the same time. He's a machine at that point, following very logical decision paths for the creature that he is. The phobia only helps activate the response. Other factors that are important with me at least are my breathing (holding breath or not), whether I foster it with a valsalva like maneuver, tensing all of my muscles, if I talk myself into it, and if there other people around freaking out. Controlled breathing and purposeful observation (mapping changes in sounds, object locations, smells, etc.) help avoid it as such. Your character has to really freak out and not get desensitized to the spiders/goblins/oh my. Give him a traumatic backstory with these creatures. Artistic license will help too (desensitized to killing them, he just triggers at will, etc.). And you have some room for fun with the hunger issue (pack a picnic for after the killing?), though remember that readers won't get why. You'll have to explain it.
posted by jwells at 12:42 PM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

your description made me lol probably because i can be a spider smasher when i see them. i'm not sure if there is a psych term but with dogs it is called fear-based aggression when they go on the attack when they are actually scared. not sure if that is at all helpful but maybe researching that will lead to a human psych term for it.
posted by wildflower at 4:47 PM on August 14, 2013

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