Phobia is a type of anxiety disorder, it is an overwhelming and unreasonable fear of an object or situation that poses little real danger but provokes anxiety and avoidance. In the event the phobia cannot be avoided entirely, the sufferer will endure the situation or object with marked distress and significant interference in social or occupational activities. There are several types of phobias exist. Acrophobia is a fear of heights. Agoraphobia is a fear of public places, and claustrophobia is a fear of closed-in places. If you become anxious and extremely self-conscious in everyday social situations, you could have a social phobia. Other common phobias involve tunnels, highway driving, water, flying, animals and blood. Not all phobias need treatment. But if a phobia affects your daily life, several therapies are available that can help you overcome your fears, often permanently.
The cause of phobias is unknown. If you have a family member with a phobia, you are more likely to have a phobia. Sometimes a person might have a phobia because he or she:
- Had something bad happen, such as being bitten by a dog.
- Had a panic attack in a specific situation, such as being in an elevator.
- Saw something bad happen to someone else, such as seeing a person fall off a building.
- Saw someone else who was very scared of something, such as sitting in an airplane near a person who is afraid of flying.
- Learned about something bad happening, such as a plane crash.
Phobias usually start when a person is a child or a teenager. Children have more animal phobias, natural environment phobias, and blood-injection-injury phobias than teenagers or adults. Situational phobias usually start when a person is an adult. Women often have phobias at a younger age than men do. If a person has one phobia, he or she is likely to have another phobia as well.
Signs and Symptoms
The symptoms of a phobia can range from mild feelings of apprehension and anxiety to a full-blown panic attack. Typically, the closer you are to the thing you’re afraid of, the greater your fear will be. Your fear will also be higher if getting away is difficult.
- Difficulty breathing
- Racing or pounding heart
- Chest pain or tightness
- Trembling or shaking
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
- A churning stomach
- Hot or cold flashes; tingling sensations
- Feeling of overwhelming anxiety or panic
- Feeling an intense need to escape
- Feeling “unreal” or detached from yourself
- Fear of losing control or going crazy
- Feeling like you’re going to die or pass out
- Knowing that you’re overreacting, but feeling powerless to control your fear
To find out if you have a phobia, your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms, including how long you have had them. Your doctor will also do a physical exam and ask questions about your medical history. And he or she will ask questions about medicines you are taking. This information will help your doctor find out whether or not you have some other condition.
To be diagnosed with a phobia, you will probably have most of the following symptoms:
- You are more afraid than most people of a specific object, situation, or activity.
- You feel stressed or have a panic attack when you are near the object or situation.
- If you are a teenager or adult, you understand that the amount of fear you have about the object or situation is not reasonable.
- You avoid the object, situation, or activity that you are afraid of.
- The fear and stress that you feel make it hard for you to do normal activities such as going to work every day or doing grocery shopping.
- If you are under age 18, you have had symptoms for at least 6 months.
- Your symptoms don’t fit another problem, such as panic disorder.
Your doctor or a mental health provider may suggest medications or behavior therapy or both to treat phobias. Most adults don’t get better on their own and may require some type of treatment. The goal of phobia treatment is to reduce your anxiety and fear and to help you better manage your reactions to the object or situation that causes them.
Medications can help control the anxiety and panic from thinking about or being exposed to the object or situation you fear.
- Beta blockers. These medications work by blocking the stimulating effects of adrenaline on your body, such as increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, pounding heart, and shaking voice and limbs that are caused by anxiety. Short-term use of beta blockers can be effective in decreasing symptoms when taken before an anticipated event, for example, before a performance for people who have severe stage fright.
- Antidepressants. Antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are commonly used in the treatment of phobias. These medications act on the chemical serotonin, a neurotransmitter in your brain that’s believed to influence mood. As an alternative, your doctor may prescribe another type of antidepressant, depending on your situation.
- Sedatives. Medications called benzodiazepines help you relax by reducing the amount of anxiety you feel. Sedatives need to be used with caution because they can be addictive and should be avoided if you have a history of alcohol or drug dependence.
Talking with a trained mental health professional can help you deal with your phobias.Several types of psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, may be effective.
Desensitization or exposure therapy focuses on changing your response to the object or situation that you fear and may be helpful for phobias. Gradual, repeated exposure to the cause of your phobia may help you learn to conquer your anxiety. For example, if you’re afraid of elevators, your therapy may progress from simply thinking about getting into an elevator, to looking at pictures of elevators, to going near an elevator, to stepping into an elevator. Next, you may take a one-floor ride, then ride several floors and then ride in a crowded elevator.
Cognitive behavioral therapy involves exposure combined with other techniques to learn ways to view and cope with the feared object or situation differently.You learn alternative beliefs about your fears and the impact they have on your life. There’s special emphasis on learning to develop a sense of mastery and control of your thoughts and feelings.
Treatment depends on the type of phobia you have:
- Specific phobias usually are treated with exposure therapy.
- Social phobias may be treated with exposure therapy or with antidepressants or beta blockers.
- Agoraphobia, especially when it’s accompanied by a panic disorder, is usually treated with exposure therapy or with SSRIs.
Each phobia is different and no single self-help programme will work for everyone. You may decide to use your own self-help strategy, or get help from a mental health specialist, such as a psychologist.
A self-help programme could include:
- lifestyle changes
- a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
- attending a self-help group
- using exposure therapy to overcome your fear
- a combination of these
Making some simple adjustments to your lifestyle may help reduce the symptoms of a phobia, such as panic attacks. This could include:
- regular exercise
- eating healthy, regular meals
- getting enough sleep
- reducing or avoiding caffeine and other stimulants
Exposure therapy (desensitisation)
Exposure therapy (desensitisation) involves gradually increasing the length of time you’re exposed to your phobia.
For example, if you have agoraphobia (a fear of open spaces and public places), you might start by going outside your house for a very short period of time, before gradually increasing the length of time you spend outside and the distance you travel from your house.
Exposure therapy can be a very effective way of enabling you to cope with your anxiety.
Other self-help techniques include:
- relaxation techniques – a series of physical exercises that may help you relax and control your breathing
- visualisation – combines relaxation and breathing techniques with mentally visualising how you will successfully deal with a situation that could cause anxiety
- self-help groups – a useful way of meeting others with similar experiences and sharing ways of coping