What is a Phobia?
A phobia is an excessive and irrational fear reaction. Those with a phobia experience a prevailing sense of dread when encountering a certain place, situation, or object. Different from generalized anxiety disorders, phobias can be connected to something specific, rather than just general underlying anxiety. A person with a phobia can experience intense anxiety that may lead to a panic attack.
The impact of phobias can range form minimally annoying to severely disabling. Phobias warrant assessment when they interfere with daily routines, occupational or academic functioning, social activities, and personal relationships. Phobias produce marked and persistent fear that is excessive and unreasonable and people who suffer from phobias often realize their fears are irrational, but are unable to do anything about them. It is estimated that 19 million Americans have a diagnosable phobia that causes impairment in some aspect of their lives.
What causes Phobias?
Evidence has shown that phobias emerge from genetic predisposition combined with environmental factors. Children who have parents or other close relatives with an anxiety disorder are more likely to develop a phobia than the general population. When a genetically predisposed person is exposed to a distressing environmental experience, there is a high risk for phobia development. Distressing environmental experiences can include: exposure to confined spaces, extremes in temperature, a near-drowning situation, or an animal or insect bite.
What are the types of Phobias?
Agoraphobia, the most common phobia, involves anxiety about places or situations from which escape may be impossible. People with agoraphobia typically fear being in large crowds or trapped outside the home in a place of exposure. The word itself refers to “fear of open spaces,” and a common feature of agoraphobia is avoiding social situations altogether by remaining at home.
Also referred to as social anxiety disorder, social phobia is extreme anxiety over social interaction that can lead to isolation. A social phobia can be so severe that the person experiences panic with even simple interactions such as ordering at a restaurant or answering the telephone. As with all phobias, the person recognizes the fear as irrational but is powerless to stop it. Those with social phobia will often go out of their way to avoid public situations. They often become withdrawn from society.
There are over one hundred different phobias recognized by the American Psychiatric Association that describe fears over specific objects, situations, or creatures. Many people experience some aversion to a specific situation or object, but for it to be a true phobia, the fear must affect the person’s daily life. Some of the most commonly recognized phobias are:
- Performance anxiety, or glossophobia: the fear of speaking in front of an audience. Although much of the population dislikes public speaking, those with this phobia experience severe physical symptoms when they even think about being in front of a group.
- The fear of heights, or acrophobia. With this phobia, the person will avoid the higher floors of buildings, mountains, or even bridges. Characteristics include vertigo, dizziness, and an overwhelming feeling that one will be unable to control the urge to jump.
- The fear of enclosed or tight spaces, claustrophobia. Sever claustrophobia can be very disabling if it prevents riding in cars or elevators.
- The fear of flying, aviatophobia. It is estimated that 10 percent of the population avoids airplane travel as a result of this phobia.
- Fear of the dentist or dental procedures, dentophobia. This generally develops out of an unpleasant experience at a dentist’s office. The harm is that it may prevent a person from obtaining the dental care he or she needs.
- Fear of blood or injury, hemophobia. A person with hemophobia may faint when in contact with their own or another person’s blood.
- Animal or insect phobias: most commonly arachnophobia (fear of spiders), cynophobia (fear of dogs), and ophidiophobia (fear of snakes). These often develop out of normal childhood fears but may be connected with a past experience such as an animal bite.
- Fear of the nighttime or darkness, nyctophobia. This phobia almost always begins in childhood. When it progresses past adolescence, however, it is considered a phobia.
How are Phobias treated?
Treatment for phobias can involve therapeutic techniques, medications, or a combination of both. The most commonly used therapeutic treatment for phobias is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT involves exposure to the source of the phobia in a controlled setting in order to decondition patients and reduce anxiety. The therapy focuses on helping to identify and change negative thoughts, dysfunctional beliefs, and reactions to the phobia. New CBT techniques have made use of virtual reality technology in order to engage more patients.
Pharmaceutical interventions include antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. Evidence has suggested that antipsychotic medications may be beneficial, but currently they are not approved for use in phobia treatment. Many medications prescribed for phobias need to be given under careful observation of a knowledgeable professional. It is important to combine medication with therapeutic techniques rather than rely on medication alone.
Phobias can intrude on many aspects of a person’s quality of life, causing ongoing anxiety and physical discomfort. It is critical to recognize the phobia and seek treatment when needed. While overcoming phobias is difficult, there is hope. With the right treatment, people with phobias can lead productive, fulfilling lives.
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