It’s October. You are already dreading the 31st. Halloween may be fun and exciting for most people but for you it is an annual time of anxiety and fear. Halloween may be intended to be enjoyable. Many people love it. In fact, Americans spend almost as much on Halloween decorations as they do for Christmas. But for you, there is nothing fun or festive about it.
You are not simply a “scaredy cat”. You are not making this up. You may, in fact, have a diagnosable condition called Samhainophobia, an unrelenting escalation of anxiety, even terror, about things related to Halloween.
The phobic fear of the traditions, decorations and costumes of Halloween has been named for the ancient Celtic autumn festival of Samhain that was celebrated about 2000 years ago.
A little history
Samhain marked the beginning of the dark time of the year. It was thought that during the last days of harvest, the boundary between the real world and the underworld could be easily crossed by the dead. People dressed in costumes to disguise themselves from any of the wandering dead who were intending to do them mischief or harm. They would go door to door in disguise offering stories or song in exchange for food. The festival culminated in a huge community bonfire and the slaughtering of animals for both sacrifice and food.
With the spread of Christianity into Ireland, the traditions of Samhain merged with the new religion. It’s unclear whether early Christians appropriated Samhain traditions to make Christianity more acceptable to the people or whether the people cloaked their traditions with Christian symbols and stories in order to be able to secretly practice their ancient pagan religion. Whichever is the case, the celebration and traditions of the Roman Catholic holy day of All Saints (or All Hallows Evening) and Samhain got entangled.
Whether during holy days or pagan events, entertainment, parties and play are ways humans across the centuries have coped with fears of death, the dark and the onset of the long barrenness of winter. Making what we fear into a playful celebration diffuses those fears and gives us an opportunity to master them.
But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. Sometimes for some people, instead of diffusing the fears, the holiday exacerbates it.
What is Samhainophobia?
Samhainophobia is a real, diagnosable specific phobia the effects people every year. Like other specific phobias, anxiety and even terror are associated with something “specific”, in this case things related to Halloween.
Symptoms of Samhainophobia include the problems often associated with other phobias:
- Extreme anxiety, dread, and even terror and panic about anything associated with Halloween
- Shortness of breath, rapid breathing
- Sweating, Hot or cold flashes
- Dry mouth
- Chest pain
- Inability to speak coherently
- Numbing or a tingling sensation
Just as with any other phobia, the number and intensity of symptoms varies with the individual. Some people experience mild fear so can shake off the symptoms. Others are immobilized by their dread.
Most phobias are caused by a real event, usually in early childhood. Perhaps you were brought into a Halloween game (like sitting in the dark for scary stories) or were scared by a parent wearing a gruesome mask before you were old enough to handle it. Developmentally, preschoolers often can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is pretend. What older kids and adults thought was fun may have been terrifying to you. – Or maybe someone jumped out at you unexpectedly while wearing a scary costume. Perhaps something traumatic happened to you while you were out trick or treating. If you think about it, there was probably an event that turned Halloween into something to dread.
In addition, there is some evidence that heredity and perhaps some differences in brain chemistry contribute to the development of phobias.
What to do
If you would like to free yourself of the phobia, there are a number of ways to get help. The following are not in any particular order. Choose the strategies that you think will work best for you.
Self-education: Knowledge is power. Knowing the history and the real meaning of the traditions can desensitize you to some of the images that send you into panic.
Mindfulness techniques: Regular practice of mindful meditation helps people reset their reactivity to images, thoughts and feelings that make them anxious. You can learn how to relax and let go of your fear so you can bring your more rational self to the surface.
Psychotherapy: Cognitive-behavioral therapy is the most well-documented approach for dealing with all anxiety disorders, including phobias. You will work with your therapist to identify negative thoughts that trigger fight or flight reactions and to substitute more accurate and reasonable ones.
Medication: Anti-anxiety medication does not cure phobias, but it can reduce the symptoms. It can also reduce your fears about confronting your fear so you will be more able to do your psychotherapy.
Hypnotherapy: A trained hypnotherapist can help you gradually confront your fears while in a state of heightened relaxation (trance). While you are relaxed, you may be encouraged to use exposure techniques – gradually exposing yourself to images you fear from the smallest to the biggest – until you can cope effectively with each one.
Can Samhainophobia be cured?
The simple answer is “yes”. You can learn to at least tolerate the holiday and even maybe to enjoy it. But it will take work on your part.