Investigating My Lifelong Phobia of Cotton Balls

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I paced by the unopened bottle of pain reliever, which sat ominously on a kitchen shelf. The headache was relentless, but I couldn’t touch the bottle. I could barely look at it. Just thinking about what might be inside was causing a sick feeling in my stomach. Then, one by one, the intrusive memories spun in my head. I envisioned a fluffy white mound cushioned above 50 pills. I could hear the horrific sound the cottony orb made while being freed from the bottle. I remembered the unnerving sensation of touching one. Goose bumps erupted on my arms, and I cringed.

A moment later, my husband walked in the door. He glanced at the shelf and then back at me, and asked, “Do you want me to open that for you?” I wearily nodded and promptly fled from the room. Some people have a designated driver; I have a designated medicine-bottle opener.

After a few minutes, he was by my side, holding a glass of water in one hand and two caplets in the other. “There was nothing in the bottle,” he reassured me. Turned out all my fear had been for nothing.

An estimated 19 million Americans have a phobia that causes difficulty in some area of their lives. Some of the more common ones are things like spiders, snakes, and heights — all of which can present some real threat, even if it’s not nearly as much as the person with the phobia perceives it to be. I, on the other hand, have sidonglobophobia, or an intense fear of cotton balls.

To the outside world, it seems far-fetched, even humorous. After all, what harm could a minuscule downy ball inflict? From an emotional standpoint, more than you can imagine.

“The fear causes significant personal distress and impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning,” psychologist Kevin Chapman, an expert in anxiety disorders, wrote in an email. Chapman explained that the fear associated with phobias can take the form of a panic attack, which often prompts the individual to engage in escape or avoidance behaviors — which, in turn, reinforces the fear over the long term. “The more I avoid, the more anxious I become of the object, though I feel better in the short term,” he said, which is exactly how I feel when confronted with a new bottle of medicine or any other situation where cotton balls might be present.

I first noticed my phobia when I was around 6 years old. I’d been curious about an oversize package of cotton balls that had lingered unopened beneath our bathroom sink; one morning, my interest finally peaked, and I tore into the bag. As soon as my fingertips pressed against the contents, I felt an unusual, very unpleasant sensation — as if my stomach was collapsing into itself. Sweat immediately formed on my palms, and a sense of dread washed over me.

Since that day, I’ve done everything humanly possible to avoid these globes of doom. People often laugh when I mention the sound they make, but even the noise they make is enough to unhinge my nervous system — it sounds like the way popcorn squeaks in your mouth when it slips from your tooth.
Whenever I hear it, I have to force myself to think of something less threatening. Fluffy kittens. Rainbow-striped unicorns. The bride of Chucky.

Paul Siegel, an associate professor of psychology at Purchase College, has researched and treated phobias in his lab for the past 12 years. He’s never seen someone with my phobia. “As you likely know, it’s not common,” he told me. But while sidonglobophobia is rare, Siegel said one can develop a phobia of literally anything. Shoelaces. Cheese. All a person really needs to develop a phobia is to have had a lived experience of associating danger with an object or a situation. They don’t even need to remember the experience — the fear response is automatically triggered and automatically activated in the amygdala, the area of the brain where fear memories are stored.

Chapman said while most phobias are a combination of environment and biology, there are three environmental pathways to developing one. The first is a traumatic conditioning experience, where people have direct experience with a phobic object or situation, which becomes a powerful “learned alarm.” The second is through vicarious (observational) learning, where people acquire a phobia through observing someone else respond in a fearful fashion to an object or situation. And the last is through informational transmission, where an individual develops a phobia after consuming threatening information via the media, conversations, and other mechanisms.

Siegel described my fear of cotton balls as “a classic example of what we call a sensory phobia.” My older sister, who also has sidonglobophobia, often spoke of her aversion when I was a child. I knew about her fear before I reached into the bag that day; in all likelihood, I was preconditioned to fear cotton balls, too, through vicarious learning.

My phobia could also be partly biological. “The fact that your sister had it too suggests to me a possible genetic vulnerability,” said Siegel. There are no genes that cause phobias, but genes can definitely make people vulnerable to phobias by influencing the development of the brain.

Siegel also suggested that the bag of cotton balls could have been “pregnant with deeper meaning.” Freud developed the theory of psychodynamic or psychoanalytic understanding, or the idea that our childhood experiences and unconscious desires influence behavior; in that line of thinking, cotton balls may reflect something symbolic that I’m no longer aware of.

Just because I don’t know the reason for my phobia, though, it doesn’t mean there’s no way to conquer it. Even with an uncommon phobia like sidonglobophobia, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) represents the “gold standard” for treatment and is often successful in a relatively short period of time, Chapman said. A form of exposure therapy, he explained, CBT involves “confronting … the feared stimulus in a ‘graduated’ fashion while simultaneously countering thoughts that overestimate the likelihood of danger or catastrophe.”

Siegel is experimenting with a form of unconscious therapy called “very brief exposure” where people with phobias are repeatedly exposed to pictures of what they’re afraid of, but the pictures are virtually subliminal. Each image is presented for about three one-hundredths of a second, which is faster than most people who have phobias can recognize. They’ve only tested this treatment on the fear of spiders and social phobias, but the results have been promising.

“The association in a phobia between a stimulus and danger is deep. It’s automatic. It’s unconscious,” Siegel explained. “If the association is unconscious, than why not use an unconscious method of exposure?”

Meanwhile, I’m still struggling with my phobia of the sight, texture, and, yes, sound of cotton balls. While therapy does sound hopeful, for now, I’ll rely on my designated medicine-bottle opener, and keep on forcing myself to picture cute kittens when I need to calm down. At least there are worse ways to spend time.

Investigating My Lifelong Phobia of Cotton Balls