The query: I’ve begun picking at my cuticles even though it’s painful and no conceivable good can result. What’s up with that?
The verdict: Pretty normal. What you’re doing sounds like yet more anxiety, says Rajiv Juneja, MD, author of You Are More Than That. And it could be worse: “Some people pull their hair out. I have one client with no eyebrows left.”
The connection between those behaviors and worry? The pain they inflict distracts the picker-pullers from the fear they’re feeling. And the fact that they are personally inflicting the pain “gives them a feeling of control,” says John McGrail, a clinical hypnotherapist in Los Angeles. It’s like: Hooray, no one else is picking my cuticles. It’s all me!
Of course, if cuticle mangling is not a real ambition of yours, try to substitute another behavior whenever you get the urge: squeeze your thumb and forefinger together, or rub cream on your fingers, making them too slippery to do much with. Just don’t start pulling out your eyebrows instead.
The query: I am scared of puppets. There, I said it. They’re supposed to be fun, but they scare the hell out of me. I can’t watch a puppet show without getting goose bumps. Why?
The verdict: Surprisingly common. Why are you so scared? Because puppets are creepy. In fact, the fear is prevalent enough that there’s even a name for it: pupaphobia.
The problem with puppets—and dolls and ventriloquist dummies (ugh, ugh, ugh!)—is that they occupy what’s called the uncanny valley. That’s the no-man’s-land between alive and not alive, real and fake. “Though these objects are not real, if they look real, the mind thinks they should be, and yet they are not,” says Tamar Chansky, of the Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. “Are they alive? Are they dead? Why are they staring at me like that? All of these experiences are uncomfortable.”
Chansky recommends a possible cure: a staring contest. Stare at the hideous object from across the room at first, then get closer and closer. “You’ll want to run, but ride it out,” she says. “You can shut off the alarms by saying, ‘I don’t like puppets and I don’t have to, but I can live with them.’”
The query: I’m afraid to tell jokes to pregnant women. I have this fear that they’re going to laugh so hard that they’ll go into labor. Is this remotely rational?
The verdict: Normal fear, abnormal idea of how funny you are. Here’s a true story: “I’m not a doctor. But when my sister was über- pregnant, we went for a walk and ended up laughing hysterically, cracking mother-in-law jokes, and she went into labor that evening,” says Sheridan, who bills herself as The Happiness Therapist. The only “happy” thought to take from that story is this: Physiologically, laughter can’t induce premature labor. Psychologically, it sounds like you just don’t want to be anywhere near a lady giving birth, which isn’t that unusual.
“I’m afraid of pregnant women myself!” says Woodward. “I think all guys are worried that when they’re around a pregnant woman, the woman is going to give birth. If I get into an elevator with a pregnant woman, my first thought is, If this thing shuts down, I’m going to have to deliver the baby myself!” “It’s a combination of protectiveness—not wanting to do any damage to a mother or her baby—and political correctness: not wanting to be rude or intrusive” about a clearly female condition, sums up Tessina. “Also, pregnancy implies sex, and that may be in the back of people’s minds.” It usually is.