by LUCY ELKINS
Last updated at 11:52 17 April 2007
Professional singer Gareth Brennan has never suffered from stage fright - in fact, he simply oozes self-confidence. Occasionally, however, this confidence deserts him - when he sees a fish.
Since Gareth, 29, was a young boy, his life has been dominated by his phobia of seafood. The sight of a piece of battered cod makes him tremble, and even a whiff of a fish finger makes him retch.
It is only recently, since seeking help, that Gareth, a father-of-two from Port Talbot in Wales, has even been able to utter the 'f' word without feeling ill.
"I'm not sure what triggered it, but my dad used to go fishing, and gut and clean his catch in the sink, and I would watch him do it.
"Then, when I was about seven, I started to be aware that the smell of the fish was lingering. I would sniff cups and plates, and if I noticed the faintest whiff I would not be able to use them.
"Soon I was trembling and throwing up at the sight of fish. My dad had to stop eating and catching it." As an adult, Gareth's problem with fish became worse, and began to take over his life.
"I would only use supermarkets I was familiar with, so that I would not accidentally come face-to-face with a fish. I would have to rush around the shops with my hand over my nose as the slightest whiff of one would make me throw up.
"On the second date with my wife-to-be, when I was 23, I told her: "I have a phobia of fish and if you ever eat it, I don't think I'll be able to kiss you again."
"It's caused me a lot of embarrassment. Once, I was halfway through my performance at a wedding when I saw a guest eating a prawn cocktail. I started trembling and started to retch.
"I had to run off stage. I later told the audience I had needed the toilet as I was too humiliated to tell them I was scared of a prawn.
"Another time, my wife and I were in a brasserie when I saw a man eating an oyster. I was sick on the spot. We just ate out at burger bars after that."
A round 13 per cent of the UK population have a phobia and many become imprisoned by their fears. The most common phobia in the UK is a fear of spiders.
"A phobia can be crippling," says Dr Lucy Acheson, a counselling psychologist based in Harley Street, London.
Many people have slight fears of things, but a phobia is all engrossing and causes absolute terror which causes the release of adrenaline, producing physical symptoms such as shaking, a racing heart, nausea, blurred vision or panic attacks.
"People with phobias often start to associate other things with the object that causes it. I saw one woman who was afraid of snakes. She then became terrified of Hoover cables and telephone wires. It's an extremely distressing condition."
In the most extreme cases, people become too distraught to leave their home and lead severely restricted lives.
Humans are programmed to be afraid of things that might harm them. A phobia, however, causes irrational terror.
"Show a baby a picture of a snake or a poisonous spider, and it will instinctively pull away," says Dr Felix Economakis, a psychologist who works for the NHS and has a private clinic.
"However, a baby would not shy away from a picture of a rabbit or a kitten. This is because we have evolved to be afraid of poisonous or dangerous animals or situations. It is in our DNA.
"Phobias, though, are learned or acquired. One trigger is a trauma - for example, a car crash that gives someone a phobia of driving. Or a phobia could be learned from a parent.
"Phobias can also strike when someone is generally stressed and something tips them over the edge.
"For instance, an anxious person might get on a plane, realise they have forgotten something and start to feel panicky in the air. In their mind they connect this fear with the flight, and so a phobia of flying is born."
Some people are also more prone to phobias. Identical twins can develop the same phobia even if they are separated at birth and grow up in different places. This suggests genes may be involved. Phobias can be treated by teaching the brain to think differently about the object of the phobia.
"Someone who has a phobia becomes extremely anxious. When this happens, a primitive part of the brain called the amygdala takes over," says Dr Economakis. "This part of the brain stops rational thinking."
First, hypnosis or talking with a therapist is used to help patients relax - this is when we use the front central lobe, the thinking part of the brain.
The thought or sight of their phobia is then introduced. The patient can rationalise the object and realise it is not going to hurt them. This prompts the brain to 'reregister' its reaction — known as systematic desensitisation.
"The first time, you might get the person relaxed and show them a toy or a cartoon image of the object," says Dr Economakis.
"The next time, you might show them a film and then the third time you might ask them to touch the object. In this way, phobias can normally be treated with about three hours of therapy."
Dr Acheson and Dr Economakis used this approach to treat a group of people with phobias in a new BBC series, The Panic Room. Gareth was one of several patients exposed to their feared object in a sealed room.
He'd decided to confront his phobia for the sake of his daughters Dayna, four, and nine-month-old Sophie.
"I was ruled by my fear," he says.
"Dayna loves fish fingers, but just the smell of them on her breath would make me vomit. Going through the programme was one of the hardest things of my life."
When he was hypnotised, he was told to think about fish 'rationally'.
"My feelings of unease would start in my stomach and make me want to vomit, so I was told to imagine pushing my feelings back down my stomach and away from me.
"On the second day, I was asked to touch a fish. It was a big dead one, but my mind was still screaming "no". It felt slimy and horrible, but I did it."
Gareth's final challenge was to eat a mouthful of fish. He refused to eat a prawn, but managed to swallow a forkful of grilled sea bass without retching. "It didn't taste too bad, but I don't think I would do it again," he says.
"The therapy has made a huge difference to my life. My family and I often now go out for lunch, and I don't have to worry about what people next to me will be eating."
Julia Ruddick's phobia is more unusual - she has a problem with buttons. Recently, this account manager from Warrington, Cheshire, who is married with three children, was looking through clothes in a shop when she came across a top with lots of buttons.
"I felt sick and quickly threw it on the ground," she says.
"Within seconds, I started to have a panic attack. My heart raced and I was shaking and felt sick.
"About a year ago, a button came off a colleague's shirt. I ran out of the office screaming and started to hyperventilate.
"I've had this problem ever since I was a little girl," she says. "It began after I opened a drawer at home one day and saw a green cardigan with big buttons that gave me the creeps.
"I can cope with small buttons, like on shirts, although I have to iron with them facing the ironing board. But large plastic ones are horrible. I barely have any skirts or dresses because so many have them. Most of my trousers have drawstring waists or zips.
"I know it is irrational, but they terrify me and make me feel dirty. Deep down, I thought they were out to get me."
Counselling and psychotherapy to help beat phobias are available on the NHS, but this was not an option Julia wanted to take.
"I would have felt stupid," she says. "Imagine going to the doctor and saying: "I'm scared of buttons.""
Then she saw an advert for The Panic Room. As well as the desensitisation process, Julia was given a mantra - £It's only a button, it won't hurt you" - to repeat.
She was then asked to watch film shots of buttons, on day two touch an item of clothing with a button on it, and on day three stand under an umbrella as thousands of buttons were rained upon her.
She admits she is still not completely free of her fear. "After my treatment I decided I would try to achieve my dream, which was to buy a sheepskin coat with buttons.
"Some I could not get near, as the buttons were too prominent - but at least I didn't scream. In the end, I bought one with a couple of small discreet buttons on."
Phobias never disappear on their own, says Dr Economakis. "Without treatment, they tend to worsen. So the sooner a sufferer gets help, the better."
The Panic Room is on BBC3 tonight at 9pm.
For help, call The National Phobics Society on 0870 122 2325.