The Mystery Behind Debilitating Phobias

Tony Shalhoub poses with the NHL Stanley Cup on the set of "Monk" in San Pedro, Calif., on May 11, 2006. Adrian Monk, his character on the show, is an obsessive compulsive detective who helps the San Francisco police department solve crimes.
Mark Mainz/Getty Images
David Hoberman is obsessive-compulsive and has more phobias than you can count.

"I always go to the right of anything," he told Sunday Morning correspondent Martha Teichner. "I will not go under ladders. I don't like to fly."

From the very first episode, Monk, USA cable's star detective, was meant to be the walking definition of anxiety disorder — but funny. The back-story is that Monk and Hoberman, the show's creator, have a lot in common.

For the 40 million Americans who have an anxiety disorder, fears from ailuraphobia (a terror of cats) to aphenphosmphobia (dread of being touched) are not just funny-sounding crossword solutions, as actor Tony Shalhoub discovered.

"People's lives can be, you know, shattered," he said. "I realized we really have to tread lightly here, because it's a serious problem."

Jerilyn Ross, who runs the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, said that people who suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder are being sent the wrong signals about what they should fear.

"Something is telling your body that there's danger, but there isn't any danger, and so what happens is the person is totally aware that this is irrational," Ross said. "Even people with the same, exact anxiety disorder can have very different symptoms."

Jennifer Reines was 15 and at a party when her first panic attack came out of nowhere. Suddenly, her body felt very hot and the room began to spin.

"I felt like I was having a heart attack," she said. "It was probably the most terrifying experience in my life, and then after that I started to get them every single night before I went to bed."

Stephanie McKee has a fear of elevators and has been in therapy for years. She can remember walking up 19 flights of stairs rather than taking an elevator.

Emily Ford was afraid of talking in public. It got so bad that at one point she eight months living by herself in a cabin with no electricity in the Vermont woods.

"I'd sweat," she said. "I'd just be terrified that I was just gonna say something wrong or foolish and I couldn't talk, so I just wouldn't go out."

All three of these young women have been struggling to overcome what they consider the living hell of their anxiety disorders at the treatment center Ross runs outside Washington, D.C.

"A lot of people think that, 'Oh, you're not really sick,' or you know, 'It's just in your head and you can just get over it,'" Reines said. "But it is a disease."

Scientists have found that there is usually a genetic predisposition to anxiety disorders and they can be triggered by a physical or emotional trauma. Caffeine can even set off the accompanying panic attacks. Twice as many women have anxiety disorders as men, and sufferers can't turn their fears off because their brains function abnormally.