WHAT is it that really, heart-stoppingly scares you? I don't mean things that go bump in the night or your own personal pet hates. I mean the things that set your heart racing in terror, break you out in cold, garden-sprinkler sweats of panic and leave you panting and shivering.

We all have secret fears. With some it is the dread of having to stand your round at the bar when you know you have short arms and deep pockets. With others it is the thought of biting on cotton wool; fingernails being dragged slowly and deliberately down a blackboard; stepping on the cracks in the pavement or leaving the lavatory with your skirt tucked in your tights.

These are mere ripples on the Richter scale of fears, minor perspirations of panic, no more than superstitions such as crossing on the stairs or putting new shoes on the table.

Some poor people live with constant phobias that can be as disabling as an amputation.

The dictionary definition of a phobia is "a deep, intense and irrational fear..." And there are more phobias than shades of white on the Dulux colour mixer chart.

A young female colleague, who in every other way is as rational as you or I - well, maybe just you - has had to seek help to overcome her fear of birds. She imagines them attacking her, fluttering at her face and hair.

Coo, just imagine the Hitchcock nightmare walk to work through York with trillions of pigeons flocking in the city centre just waiting to terrorise her.

Two of my male pals are afraid of water - swimming water, not the drinking version. If rabies had not already claimed the name, we could have called it hydrophobia.

These are middle-aged men who are finally learning to swim. Credit to them, they have also had to overcome the embarrassment of learning to swim in classes floundering alongside a load of shrieking seven year olds who find it amusing that these grown-ups cannot swim.

They splash and splutter if they get so much as a droplet in their face. They kick and writhe at the thought of sinking into the bottomless, murky depths of the shallow end of the pool that only comes up to their waist. But they are sticking at it, and to me, that is real courage.

With some, the phobias become serious, clinical problems. An old friend has deep-seated phobias about germs and traffic. Strange bedfellows, but to him they are real and cannot be eradicated.

The germs are the worst because they are everywhere. Seemingly every 20 minutes he scrubs his hands until they are raw and blistered; he sprays everything - like his office phone and keyboard - with antiseptic liquid. He politely refuses to shake hands and receives a sheet of paper between two knuckles, not finger ends.

An office ballpoint pen will be used for one day, after that it cannot be touched. They gather on his desk like chopsticks after a Chinese banquet.

He will stand at a door for endless minutes waiting for someone else to come through it, so he does not have to contaminate his hands on the well-used, dirty door knob. If the wait becomes too long he pulls his sweater sleeves down over his hands to open the door.

His coat will not hang alongside everyone else's. It hangs lonely in a quiet, clean corner.

Then there's the traffic. He can stand patiently beside a long, quiet stretch of road for half an hour, looking right and left and left and right, before he considers it safe to cross. Even then, when he's over to the other side with miles to spare, he will obsessively go back again and again to make sure he has not caused an accident.

Walking along the pavement, he steers as far away as he can from other pedestrians because he thinks he will force them under the wheels of a monster truck. He constantly looks over his shoulder at someone he has passed to make sure he has not nudged them into the road. And when he gets where he is going, he still frets for hours that he has caused someone's death or serious injury.

You know when you go to bed and wonder if you have locked the back door, so you go down to check? The serious obsessive compulsive will go down again and again and again to keep reassuring him or herself that the job is done.

What's my phobia? Snakes. Yuk. It's ever since I went on an army press trip to the Belizian jungle and was warned about flying reptiles that threw themselves at your throat from high up in a tree - and that night we dined on what I thought was chicken and turned out to be curried boa-constrictor.

Updated: 09:29 Tuesday, May 20, 2003