By Jessica Millman

The Dreaded...

The Dreaded...


My interest in this area came about when I was relaying a story to my best friend about another friend’s phobia. I could hardly conceal my delight in the tale as I thought it was the cutest and strangest phobia I have ever heard of. I was stunned when my best friend replied “Oh my God! I have that fear too!!!!”

What is the demon in question you may well ask – of all things, cotton wool! As she told me hilarious stories about her boyfriend chasing her around the house with cotton wool in hand (luckily with best friends it is absolutely ok to laugh uproariously at their greatest fears!) I started to wonder how many other people are afflicted with this particular dread. To my utmost amazement, it seems that in fact this is quite a common one!

So what is it about cotton wool that is so bad? As I tried to imagine what the dilemma was it occurred to me that the trouble lies with the resistant texture of the object in question (particularly when it is ripped apart).

“How do you feel about cornflour then?” I asked.

“No! Stop! Don’t say that word!!!”

Aha! Another manifestation of the cotton wool phobia!

I confessed to my dear friend that I sometimes wear cotton balls in my ears to block out sound when I am trying to sleep in an unfamiliar environment (I suffer from a fear of not getting enough sleep!) She cringed at the very thought and said that if she ever saw me with cotton wool in my ears she would have to get it out straight away with a pair of tongs!

I feel I must admit to my own phobic tendency, just to even the stakes a little for all the cotton wool terror sufferers out there. I cannot stand the sound of a knife being sharpened. Something about metal on metal just makes me cringe. In fact when my partner decides it is time to prep the kitchen knife for a good dose of chopping I have to leave the room, fingers in my ears and sing ‘lalalala’ songs until the dreaded sound is heard no more! If I’m ready for it I can steal myself for the sound and tell myself I’m not bothered in the slightest, but am always secretly relieved when it stops.

From memory it started when I had braces on my teeth. Something about the brassy taste of metal in your mouth all day long… I suppose I was able to transfer my discomfort to a sound rather than the taste of metal itself. Because if I didn’t get over that, how on earth would I sleep at night?!

Researching cotton wool phobia is the best fun I have had in a long time. Just look at some of these gems from web forums of fellow sufferers:


“I am scared to death of cotton balls!”


“I have a fear of cotton balls, each time I see one I run away from it.”


“…It’s really freeing to know I’m not alone in this cotton terror.”


On Wiki Answers, a public forum for discussion of just about anything, someone admitted to having a fear of cotton wool and another member of the group responded with, “HOLY CRAP, I totally have the same phobia, I hate the stuff. I had a nightmare once that it touched my teeth!”

To which the ‘Asker’ replied,“Aaaaarrggghhhh, you’re giving me nightmares too!”

Sir Nickle Barsteward replied unsympathetically with one simple word, “weirdo!!!”

‘Anonymous’ is in denial:

“I don’t have the phobia but I get crazy shiver spells for like 20 minutes afterwards when I hear it getting pulled apart”

What a terrible, hilarious affliction!


Who could possibly be afraid of this lovely substance?

How could anyone possibly be afraid of this lovely substance?

So what are phobias?

Phobia is a term that refers to a group of symptoms of anxiety brought on by feared objects or situations. People can develop phobic reactions to animals (e.g. dogs), activities (e.g. getting on an aeroplane), or social situations (e.g. performance situations, eating in public or simply being out in public at all). (Croft, 2009)

Of course there are some very common phobias – fear of spiders (Arachnophobia), fear of snakes (Ophidiophobia or Snake phobia) – that are more easily understood. These sorts of fears are innate, primal instincts designed to protect us from danger.

Another phobia you will be familiar with is agoraphobia. Why is that?! Why do we all seem to know that one? I think it is safe to say that we have all experienced it some time, in some small way at some time in our lives (like a Sunday morning when you know it would be good for you to get some fresh air but you decide instead not to leave the house all day for no apparent reason).

But there is a serious side to this (believe it or not). Phobias, as a form of compulsive behaviour, can be dangerous. People can feel trapped by their dread which can develop into serious mental disorders that can actually interfere with their lifestyle and become debilitating. While it may be easy enough to go through life without having too much to do with cotton wool, you cannot avoid going outside and for someone suffering with agoraphobia, this is a very real problem.

Phobias are often formed from some traumatic episode (for me, the trauma of having braces put on my teeth) and many people are not aware they have formed these phobias as a form of protection from a repeat of such an episode.

Counselling, NLP (Neuro linguistic programming) or hypnotherapy may be necessary for acute phobia sufferers as they are akin to anxiety disorders and may hint at a more serious problem.

Another possibility is CBT (Cognitive behavioural therapy) which may include breathing exercises to bring calm and maintain a sense of control.

‘Systematic Desensitisation’ may sound cold and clinical but is basically a form of behavioural therapy. It is generally used to help people effectively overcome phobias and other anxiety disorders. More specifically, it is a type of Pavlovian therapy or classical conditioning therapy developed by a South African psychiatrist, Joseph Wolpe in the 1950’s.


Wikipedia has this to say on the subject; “The goal of Systematic Desensitization is to overcome this avoidance pattern by gradually exposing patients to the phobic object until it can be tolerated. This will be challenging for the patient at first to deal with the fear, but gradually, most will overcome this fear. In classical and operant conditioning terms the elicitation of the fear response is extinguished to the stimulus (or class of stimuli).” Right…

For example, somebody with a phobia of spiders might use the following system of exposure for 20-30 minutes at a time, over a course of weeks or months:

  1. Reading about spiders
  2. Looking at and then touching a photograph of a spider
  3. Looking at/touching a plastic model of a spider
  4. Looking at/touching a jar with a small spider in it
  5. Picking the spider out of the jar
  6. Picking up a large spider (though I personally think that is going a bit too far!)

(University of Cambridge Counselling Service, 2008)

Obviously the last few steps of this system are only used when the object or activity in question is considered safe (cotton wool; safe, venomous snakes; not recommended).

It all comes down to human behaviour. Humans are habitual creatures and can easily fall into patterns of behaviour that can create anxieties and even inhibit our every day activities. Don’t fall victim to this! If you suffer from an irrational fear, just change your behaviour around this object or experience. You have the power to change your response to illogical behaviours and reduce anxiety in your ever day life. Don’t be a victim to something that is totally unfounded!

The University of Cambridge Counselling Service suggests replacing frightening thoughts with logical thoughts based on reason.

Frightening thoughts: This plane will crash
Rational thoughts: I’ve flown many times before and nothing has happened. This is the safest way to travel statistically.

Frightening thoughts: I’ll make a fool of myself
Rational thoughts: I’ve done this before and managed to cope – there is no reason why I cannot do so this time.

“View each time you confront the feared situation as an opportunity to learn to overcome your anxiety in this way, rather than something to dread. When the anxiety has gone, remind yourself that you have survived, and have not gone mad, lost control or died!”

If you suffer from fear of cotton wool, the question you face is whether the current impact on your quality of life is worth spending half-a-dozen sessions with a psychologist to work on or whether it is something you are prepared to tackle yourself.

For groundless fears, the recommended form of treatment is generally controlled exposure to the object or situation in question to reprogram the mind. Cotton wool related deaths are few and far between so this should be a relatively safe practice.

I must apologise to anyone who may have cotton wool phobia whom I may have offended. But come on, you have to admit, it is pretty funny!




When and where to seek further help

  • If your phobias are interfering with your ability to lead a full, normal life and you don’t make any progress in challenging them yourself
  • If you are experiencing a lot of anxiety or distress, and you seem to be feeling like this often
  • If you are avoiding situations that matter
  • If you suffer from overwhelming blushing/trembling/sweating in social situations or feel that you lack social skills

In these circumstances, seek help from a Counselling Service or registered psychologist.






Free telephone counselling, 24 hours a day with Lifeline Australia 13 11 14.

The Lifeline Information Service provides access to a variety of self-help tool kits with information about issues such as mental illness, depression, suicide prevention, and more.



2 thoughts on “Articles

  1. Excellent article! Informative, entertaining, engaging and sustained. Typo in 5th paragraph ‘steak’ instead of ‘stake’.
    I know! picky, picky, picky!

    Good choice running with this -much more fun than MEAA article.

    • Haha that’s ok Peter, it’s your job to be picky 🙂 Glad you liked the article, I really enjoyed researching it! I haven’t had such a good laugh in a while!

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