Fear is a natural part of the human experience. It helps keep us safe from potentially dangerous situations, it allows us to escape or fight if need be, and it teaches us about how to navigate our surroundings. Fear is a very healthy emotion to have.
However, sometimes this fear becomes paralyzing and irrational. You know that the spider is just a spider and that it probably can't hurt you; however, your mind makes it eight feet tall and looming over you, and you become paralyzed by the fear. This extreme fear reaction can interfere with your daily life and your normal routine, which is when it becomes a problem.
What is a Phobia?
Phobias are the result of an anxiety disorder which results in extreme, persistent and irrational fear of an object or situation. An individual with a phobia will go to extreme lengths to avoid the object of their fear, and reactions are often disproportionate to the danger posed by the object of the phobia. The individual may recognize that their fear is irrational, yet cannot change his or her belief even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
This ability to recognize that the fear is irrational and disproportionate, along with the inability to change it or react differently, is what separates a phobia from a fear. Similarly, another difference between fear and phobia is that you change your everyday life and routine to avoid the object of your phobia.
The Diagnostic Statistical Manual (TR-IV) defines phobias as the following:
- A marked and persistent fear that is excessive or unreasonable, cued by the presence or anticipation of a specific object or situation
- Exposure to the phobia stimulus invariably provokes an immediate anxiety response
- The person recognizes the fear is excessive or unreasonable
- The avoidance, anxious anticipation, or distress in the situation interferes significantly with the person's normal routine or there is marked distress about having the phobia
The National Institute of Mental Health report The Numbers Count: Mental Disorders in America presents the following statistics about phobias.
- Nearly 15 million American adults age 18 and over have social phobia.
- Agoraphobia affects almost 1.8 million American adults age 18 and over.
- Some type of specific phobia has been reported by approximately 19.2 million American adults age 18 and over.
Categories of Phobias:
Phobias can be grouped into a variety of sub-categories:
- Social phobias are specific to people or social situations due to a fear of judgment or negative reactions from others. The individual is terrified of this judgment or reaction, and avoids social situations, even if there is an intense desire to have social interactions.
- Agoraphobia is a generalized term for a fear of leaving the home or fear of escape from spaces.
- Specific phobias are phobias that are triggered by a specific object or situation. Common phobias include spiders (arachnophobia), snakes (ophidiophobia), heights (acrophobia), injections/needles (trypanophobia), enclosed spaces (claustrophobia), along with fear of flying, fear of disease (hypochondria), dental phobia, fear of vomiting (emetophobia), and performance anxiety/fear of public speaking (glossophobia).
How Are Phobias Treated?
Phobias can be treated by a variety of methods.
Anti-anxiety medications can treat the symptoms of panic and anxiety associated with the specific fear or phobia.
Therapy is often utilized when managing fear and phobias. Changing how a person perceives, believes, interacts, or behaves in response to a fear stimulus can decrease the fear and panic response. In the case of abuse or trauma, it can reduce the impact of the traumatic situation. Therapy is a great tool for tackling the reasons behind the fear, and how the brain and body interpret the situation.
Exposure Therapy is a commonly employed technique in which a person is slowly exposed to the fear stimulus. For example, if a person has a fear or phobia of flying, a typical exposure therapy progression would have the person first think about flying, then talk about flying, imagine themselves flying, look at pictures of flying, go to the airport, and eventually fly. The idea behind this type of therapy is that slow exposure helps the individual build up a distress tolerance to the stimulus and build confidence over time. By learning to manage anxiety feelings, the individual builds confidence around the fear-inducing situation, lessening the impact of the fear, and allowing the person to reinterpret and the fear cues.
It is important to recognize that it is not typical to live in fear, nor should you have to. Talk to your doctor or to a psychologist; they can assist you in managing your anxiety response and treat the cause of your fear.
Additional Resources for Fear and Phobias:
The Phobia List - list of all known phobias.
Social Phobia/Social Anxiety Association - links, examples of social phobias, and mailing lists designed for those with social phobia disorder.
PhobicsAwareness.org provides information and support for a variety of phobias and anxiety disorders.
KidsHealth.org explains fear, phobia, and anxiety in children.
Dental Fear Central is a UK-based website offering information and resources related to dental phobias.