Everyone gets nervous or scared in certain situations - this is perfectly normal. However, for some people, these feelings can be much more intense and persistent, even when there is no real danger present. This is known as a phobia.
Phobias can be divided into three main categories: specific phobias (such as fear of heights or fear of animals), social phobias (such as fear of public speaking), and agoraphobia (fear of open spaces). People with phobias may go to great lengths to avoid the object or situation that triggers their fear. In severe cases, phobias can have a significant impact on day-to-day life. However, there are various treatment options available that can help people manage their fear and regain control of their lives.
What are Phobias?
Phobia refers to a severe, irrational aversion to a particular thing or circumstance. Since anxiety is the primary symptom of this disorder, phobias are categorised as a specific type of anxiety disorder. It is believed that phobias are learned emotional reactions. According to general consensus, phobias develop when the fear triggered by a threatening situation is transferred to other situations that are similar, with the original fear frequently repressed or forgotten. For instance, an excessive, irrational fear of water might be rooted in a forgotten childhood near-drowning experience. The person then makes an effort to avoid that situation in the future, and while that temporarily lessens anxiety, in the long run it only serves to reinforce the association between the situation and the onset of anxiety.
Despite the fact that phobias are categorised by psychiatrists as a single type of anxiety disorder, hundreds of words have been created to describe the specific type of fear by prefixing "phobia" with the Greek word for the thing that causes the fear. Acrophobia (or the fear of heights), claustrophobia (or the fear of enclosed spaces), nyctophobia (or the fear of the dark) ochlophobia (or the fear of crowds), xenophobia (or the fear of strangers), and zoophobia (or the fear of animals) are a few of the more prevalent examples. Agoraphobia, or the fear of being in public or open spaces, is a particularly debilitating condition that may even prevent its victims from leaving their homes. Schoolchildren who are overly dependent on a parent may experience school phobia.
Some phobias are extremely specific and limited. Ailurophobia, for instance, is the fear of cats. By avoiding the thing they are afraid of, the person in this situation manages to live relatively anxiety-free. Some phobias are problematic in a wider range of environments or circumstances. For instance, gazing out the window of an office building or crossing a high bridge can bring on the symptoms of acrophobia (a fear of heights). Taking the elevator or using a small restroom can both cause claustrophobia (a fear of small spaces). These phobias may require their sufferers to make significant lifestyle changes. In the worst cases, the phobia may even control a person's employment, job location, driving route, recreational activities, social interactions, or their home environment.
Three Major Types of Phobias
- Specific Phobia
With this most prevalent type of phobia, people may have a fear of certain people (such as clowns, dentists, or doctors), things, or animals (such as dogs, cats, spiders, or snakes), environments (such as dark places, thunderstorms, or high places), or situations (such as flying in a plane, riding on a train, being in a confined space). These illnesses appear to run in families and are at least partially genetic (inherited).
- Social Anxiety Disorder
People who suffer from social anxiety disorder are afraid of being in public settings where they might be ridiculed, embarrassed, or judged by others. When unfamiliar people are involved, they experience increased anxiety. The fear might only apply to public speaking, performing in front of an audience, or giving a business presentation. Or it might be more widespread, causing the phobic person to avoid many social situations like eating in public or using the restroom in front of others. It appears that social anxiety runs in families. People with a history of unhappy or negative social experiences in childhood or those who were shy or solitary as children seem more likely to develop this disorder.
Agrophobia is a fear of being in public settings where leaving abruptly would be challenging or embarrassing. A person with agoraphobia may refrain from taking the bus, train, or going to a movie or concert. Many people who suffer from agoraphobia also experience panic attacks or panic disorder (which involves intense fear plus uncomfortable physical symptoms, such as trembling, heart palpitations and sweating).
Phobias can be brought on by environmental and genetic factors. Children are more likely to develop phobias if they have a close relative who suffers from an anxiety disorder, or may even develop as a result of distressing experiences.
Phobias are frequently present in individuals with ongoing medical conditions or health issues. Following traumatic brain injuries, phobias are very commonly observed in those patients. Phobias are also linked to depression and substance abuse.
The symptoms of phobias are distinct from those of severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia. People with schizophrenia experience negative symptoms like anhedonia, disorganised symptoms, delusions, paranoia, and visual and auditory hallucinations. Despite the irrationality of their phobias, sufferers do not fail to recognise reality.
The symptoms of phobia may represent themselves as :
- Excessive, unreasonable, enduring feelings of fear or anxiety brought on by a specific thing, activity, or circumstance.
- Emotions are either irrational or excessive compared to any real threat. For instance, while anyone may be scared of a loose, dangerous dog, most people do not flee from a quiet, calm animal on a leash.
- They tend to avoid the thing, activity, or circumstance that causes the phobia. People with phobias are frequently ashamed or embarrassed about their symptoms because they are aware that their fears are exaggerated. They stay away from the phobia's triggers to avoid anxiety or embarrassment.
- Phobic individuals may show symptoms of physical anxiety. These symptoms may include those that are indicative of the body's "fight or flight" response to danger, such as tremors, palpitations, sweating, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, or other symptoms.
There are various phobia treatment methods, and each method's success is dependent on the patient and the specific phobia at hand.
- a) Exposure Therapy
In this, the patient is subtly exposed to the thing they are afraid of in order to help them get over it. ‘Flooding’ is a form of exposure therapy in which the patient is kept in close proximity to the object of fear for a long period of time without being given the chance to flee. This approach aims to assist the person in facing their fear and realising that the feared object won't hurt them.
The different techniques used in exposure therapy are :
? In Vivo Exposure
? Virtual Exposure
? Systematic Desensitization
- b) Counter-Conditioning
This is another approach frequently used in the treatment of phobias. With this approach, the individual learns a new reaction to the feared object. The person learns relaxation techniques to counteract their anxiety and fear, so they don't panic when they encounter the feared object or circumstance.
Since the new behaviour conflicts with the old panic reaction, the phobic reaction gradually lessens. In order to treat children and adolescents who are unable to handle exposure therapies, counter-conditioning is frequently used.
- c) Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Learning to recognise the underlying unfavourable thoughts that fuel fear is a component of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). You can work on changing these negative thoughts with more constructive ones once you get better at recognising them.
- d) Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy
Rhythmic eye movements are used in eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy to aid in the processing and recovery of traumatic experiences.
- e) Medication
Finally, medication can be prescribed to help manage the disorder. Such as, a low dose of a benzodiazepine or possibly an antidepressant (like a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI), along with cognitive-behavioral therapy, can be beneficial for both adults and children with social phobia.
Phobias can be incredibly debilitating, affecting every aspect of your life. The anxiety caused by your phobia can be so overwhelming that it stops you from doing the things you love or going to the places you want to go. It can feel like you’re trapped. But it’s important to remember that you are not alone. Phobias are one of the most common disorders, and there are many effective treatments available. You don’t have to suffer in silence. Seek help from a qualified mental health professional, and take back control of your life.