What is a phobia?
A phobia is an uncontrollable fear, a fear that may have a significant debilitating effect on day to day life. A phobia is often described as an extreme and irrational fear. However; to be afraid is one thing, to have a phobia is very matter altogether.
Like anxiety fear is natural and usually good. It is vital to our survival so is actually necessary emotion in our lives. We experience it when we are confronted with an actual danger. It is part of the “fight or flight” reaction – to run away from the danger or fight it out. It is the natural method our brain uses to protect us.
A phobia is a somewhat irrational fear to a situation or stimulus that poses little or no danger to us in reality.
The severity of phobias varies from relatively mild anxiety over that fear to fully-fledged panic attacks with many associated disabling symptoms. Most people understand that they have an irrational fear but feel they are totally powerless to overcome their phobic reaction.
We are born with certain instincts that give us innate fears – we are all born with a fear of heights, loud noises and the dark. Also throughout our life we learn to be fearful of certain situations or things. It is this ability to learn to be fearful that causes many phobias. Let us suppose that a parent has an irrational fear of rice pudding and demonstrates this fear time and again to their children. The chances are that the children will grow up demonstrating the same irrational fear – the phobia has been learned.
It is our natural and learned fears that protect us from fires, climbing cliffs, snakes, sharks, savage dogs and other situations that can kill us. We are right to be afraid of height, dogs, fire, etc. but in a controlled way
Most people don’t particularly like spiders, dogs or snakes but they don’t suffer from a phobia. At worst they feel minor anxiety and get on with their lives.
What are the symptoms?
Phobia sufferers do not usually have any symptoms until they face the object or situation that they fear. However; if the phobia is severe just thinking about the trigger can provoke anxiety. Confronting the trigger may cause a panic attack. These feelings will pass eventually but the person can feel distressed by them and a sense of being out of control or completely overwhelmed. This can make person anxious about having to cope with such a horrible experience. For many there is a feeling of humiliation and embarrassment after the phobic reaction.
Also read Fight or Flight Response
What types of phobias are there?
There are phobias of so many things that it is not practical to list them but they fall into two groups:
- Specific, (Simple)
These are phobias about one thing. They most often develop during childhood or adolescence. Many people find their phobia naturally reduces as they get older, for some it increases with age.
Specific phobias are generally slotted into 4 categories:
- Animal – wasps, dogs, snakes, rats, birds
- Natural environment – heights, the sea, darkness, thunder, caves
- Situational – flying, lifts, driving on motorways
- Injury – injections, blood tests, dentists
- Body-based, e.g. blood, vomit, urine
Complex phobias are usually quite disruptive to life disabling and often develop during puberty or just after. Two of the most common complex phobias are social phobia and agoraphobia.
Social phobia (social anxiety) causes people to be very anxious when they are around other people, especially those they do not know.
Many social phobias are related to a specific activity, such as walking into a pub on their own or going to a public loo. For some it can become severely debilitating and appears an impossibility to get involved in normal activities such as going shopping, taking part in a seminar or going to a club.
Agoraphobia is not a fear of open spaces; it is more complex on many levels. The main problem of agoraphobia is a feeling of anxiety about being in places or situations from which escape appears difficult, would be embarrassing, or help is not be available if the person has a panic attack. The result is that the person avoids situations where these could happen.
Leaving home is usually very frightening causing significant anxiety. The sufferer is constantly worried that something bad is going to happen. This alone can trigger panic attacks. Most people feel they have lost their confidence and independence. They often dislike being alone (monophobia), and frequently become anxious in confined spaces (claustrophobia), such as lifts.
What causes phobias?
There doesn’t seem to be one particular cause of phobias, but there are several factors that might play a role.
- The phobia may be linked to a particular incident or trauma earlier in life.
- Learned behavioural responses; usually developed in early life from watching a parent or other person
- Genetics; there is evidence that some people are born with a predisposition to be more anxious than average.
Should I get help?
Yes; you should consider treatment for your phobia if:
- it causes intense or disabling anxiety and/or panic
- you realise that your reactions are unreasonable
- you avoid specific situations, places or objects
- the avoiding behaviour interferes with daily life or causes significant distress
- you have had the phobia for quite some time.