Doctor tells phobia sufferers how to scare off anxieties

Could you be a "phoboc"? According to Dr. Howard Liebgold — nicknamed "Dr. Fear" — millions qualify for that title.

Liebgold coined the term to describe those who suffer phobias, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and other "restrictive fears."

"I don't like the label `irrational fear,'" says Liebgold, a retired physician who calls himself a recovering claustrophobic. "All fears are rational. But phobocs have a distorted perception of what is fear-inducing. That means we can scare the bejabbers out of ourselves."

Fear of embarrassment often imprisons phobocs in secret, anguished suffering. Ultimately, untreated phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorders can lead to suicide, drug addiction or serious illness.

According to Liebgold, Jews are particularly predisposed to suffering from these types of anxieties.

"There has been a number of impressive studies that reveal an increased incidence of anxiety disorders in both American Jews and immigrants," he says. "The characteristic highly intelligent, sensitive, imaginative, empathetic profile describes us very well."

Liebgold, who lives in Hercules, told his own story and reached out to fellow phobocs last month at Peninsula Temple Beth-El in San Mateo. The event was sponsored by the Women's International Zionist Organization.

He defined three common myths that exacerbate the misery of phobocs:

Myth No. 1: "I am the only person feeling this way." The truth? As many as 46 million Americans suffer from some form of anxiety disorder.

Myth No. 2: "I am crazy or will go crazy." In actuality, phobocs are sane, logical people — the very type who go out of their way for others. "We brake for small animals. We worry. We are awesomely responsible."

Myth No. 3: "I am incurable." According to Liebgold, who has treated more than 6,000 people and cites a 93 percent recovery rate, these disorders are relatively easy to cure. But standard therapies, including psychoanalysis and drugs, have had only limited success in permanently relieving the suffering of phobocs.

Liebgold believes the origin of anxiety-related disorders is genetic. Phoboc symptoms have appeared in children as young as 2 years old. These disorders are not the result of poor parenting; they tend to run in families.

Liebgold, plagued by claustrophobia for much of his life, worked as a physician for 38 years and specialized in physiatry, or physical medicine. He suffered in shame and secrecy that narrowed his world. He was afraid to travel or to attend movies or sporting events for fear that he would be "closed off."

"It all started in college," he explains. "While attending a class in Shakespeare, I suddenly experienced a panic attack. My heart began to pound, my palms grew sweaty. I was convinced that if I didn't get out of that classroom, I was going to die."

Following that attack, he worried obsessively and feared new episodes. He began to avoid certain situations and confine his life to work and home.

Fear, says Liebgold, was given to us by nature. The hormone adrenaline delivers that familiar fight-or-flight response.

While adrenaline — which Liebgold jokingly calls "scare juice" — is essential for recognizing and fleeing real danger, it is out of place in other settings. The hormone can get in the way while attending Shakespeare classes, crossing bridges, speaking in public or riding in an airplane. "I thought my adrenal glands must have grown to the size of watermelons," he says.

To illustrate how fear can sabotage people with phobias, Liebgold removed a snaggle-toothed monster puppet from a bag. He called this puppet the "Boo Voice."

"The Boo Voice is not your friend," he says. "It lies. It exaggerates. It catastrophes. The Boo Voice is cunning and devious. Its job is to find out what scares you and make your life miserable."

Liebgold teaches people how not to panic at imaginary disasters through East Bay classes as well as seminars at the Learning Annex.

He uses various techniques to deprive the fears of their destructive power. "The cure is learning to face the fear correctly."