Phobias are excessive and irrational fears that may or may not be associated with a certain place, object, situation. These fears interfere with a person’s coping ability or lead them to stay away from the object, situation, place of trigger altogether. The triggers may or may not be normally dangerous or frightening for most people, but people suffering from phobias feel a deep sense of dread or paralyzing panic when they encounter the source of fear. 

Phobias can be annoying or disabling to the extent that they severely impact a person’s day-to-day life and the decisions they make as a whole. Often, people suffering from such phobias are aware of the fact that the fears that they have are irrational, but they aren’t able to voluntarily do too much on their own to help themselves. Phobias are a very common mental condition. As a matter of fact, 1 in 10 people experience phobias at some point in their lives. Individuals suffering from phobias mostly act and behave calmly and rationally most of the time but when they are exposed to their triggers, they become paralyzed by their fears.

What Causes Phobias

Like most other mental conditions, there is no specific cause for the development of phobias. However, there are some factors at play here which are studied, identified and confirmed by some researchers. They are as follows: 

  1. Exposure to traumatic events or experience of certain terrifying incidents: 

For example, if you were, for whatever reason, trapped in a confined space when you were young, you might have developed a fear of enclosed spaces called claustrophobia. 

  1. Learned behavior and responses:

Fear, by certain psychological approaches, is defined as a learned (or conditioned) response to stimuli in the environment. It can thus be picked up by certain factors early on in life. For example, you may pick up the same specific phobia that your parent has as a result of observational learning. 

  1. Genetics

Several studies have shown that some people are predisposed to developing phobias and are more likely to do so than others. 

  1. Long-term stress or illness:

Long term stress or an illness can cause feelings of anxiety and depression. It can reduce your ability to cope in some situations. This can make you feel anxious, stressed out and fearful about being in those situations again and, if this goes on for a longer period of time, you could develop a phobia.

Symptoms of Phobia

The fear and anxiety that a person with a phobia suffers can be experienced as both mental and physical symptoms. However the intensity of the same generally differs from one individual to another. 

A person might be involved in trying to avoid the trigger or thinking about what might happen if they encounter the trigger so much that it can cause fatigue and irritability, difficulty concentrating on even the simplest tasks, and make it difficult for such people to fall asleep or have any restful, undisturbed sleep. The physical signs of  such anxiety results are  heavy sweating, difficulty in breathing, irregular heartbeats or palpitations, dizziness or faintness, muscle tension, stomach problems, etc. 

The most disabling symptom or the peak that having a phobia could lead to, is a panic attack. Not all episodes may culminate in a panic attack, but for people with severe phobias, panic attacks can be a frequent occurrence. The symptoms of panic attacks are as follows: 

Mental Symptoms:

  • Depersonalization: Feeling detached from oneself
  • Derealization: feelings of unreality
  • A fear of going crazy, dying or losing control

Physical Symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath and hyperventilation
  • Shaking, trembling
  • A feeling of choking
  • Palpitations or increasing heart beat
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea 
  • Chest pain and discomfort
  • Hot and cold flashes
  • Numbness
  • Tingling sensations in the limbs
  • A feeling of dizziness and light-headedness 
  • Sweating
  • Abdominal pain

Difference Between Normal Fear And Phobia 

It is important at this point to talk about the difference between fear and phobia as people often can’t discriminate between the two. It is possible that you have a fear of something, and it isn’t a phobia, or maybe you’re confusing an actual phobia with just a fearful sentiment. There is a basic distinction that psychology as a field of study makes between phobias and fears. A fear is an emotional response to a real or a perceived threat. Fears are common, and are considered normal reactions to certain things. Phobias are similar to fears but there’s one basic differentiating characteristic of phobias: the anxiety aroused by the triggers and experienced by the person with the phobia is so severe that it disrupts the person’s quality of life and daily functioning.

Types of Phobia

There are mainly three types of phobias. Along with those, there are some of the most common phobias listed after these. They are as follows: 

Agoraphobia:

Agoraphobia is a fear of places and situations that causes feelings of entrapment, panic, helplessness or embarrassment. The literal meaning of the word is “fear of open spaces.” The one main defining symptom of this phobia is that people with agoraphobia feel panicked in large crowds and trapped outside of their homes. They avoid social events or situations and prefer being inside their homes. 

Social phobia:

Also known as social anxiety disorder, social phobia is an extreme fear of social situations, meeting new people, and public speaking and can lead to self isolation. The simplest of social interactions such as talking to the person at the counter, placing an order on the call, or even small talk over the phone can cause a lot of anxiety and panic. 

Specific Phobias: 

Specific phobias are fears of certain situations or objects and they interfere with a person’s daily life. A few of the most common phobias are:

  • Claustrophobia (fear of closed spaces)
  • Coulrophobia (fear of clowns)
  • Zoophobia (fear of animals)
  • Aerophobia (fear of flying)
  • Xenophobia (fear of driving)
  • Chionophobia (fear of snow)
  • Arachnophobia (fear of spiders)
  • Aichmophobia (fear of needles)
  • Ophidiophobia (fear of snakes)
  • Acrophobia (fear of heights)
  • Gamophobia (fear of commitment) 

The list of  phobias goes on. For more information on the various types of phobias, refer to the list of phobias in DSM-5.

Treatment

The treatment of phobias involves therapeutic techniques, medication, or a combination of both. 

Therapies can be of different types depending on the signs and symptoms and their severity of the client. Some of the therapeutic interventions used for treating phobias include eye movement desensitization reprocessing therapy (EMDR) which is based on some concepts of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which is also used for treating phobias, systematic desensitization, and exposure therapy among others.

Medication for phobias includes antidepressants, and anti-anxiety medication to reduce the emotional and physical reactions of fear. 

Why Seeking Help Is Important

If your condition has begun to interfere with your daily functioning and is negatively affecting most or all aspects of your life, seeking help is a crucial step that you must take. Even though it may be difficult to gather the courage to do so, you must see a mental health professional for your phobia(s). Remember that mental health disorders can be treated and are manageable, and your life has the potential to be the most fruitful, wholesome and enjoyable experience. So, joining a support group, going for therapy and taking your prescribed medication (if any) is absolutely critical. The outcome that you’d gain would be a deeper understanding of yourself and your condition,  the ability to form better relationships and find more meaningful connections, and skills that help you manage your condition and excel in life.

Frequently Asked Questions about Phobias

Q. How to prevent specific phobias?

Many specific phobias can unfortunately not be prevented, but early intervention and treatment can considerably help and reduce the symptoms and instances of any anxiety or panic attack episodes. It can prevent the development of chronic fear associated with the incident.

Q. Which is the most common phobia?

Arachnophobia (Fear of spiders) is the most common phobia in the world, 50% of women and 10% of men have it.

Q. What is the basic diagnostic criteria for phobias?

Phobias are fears that:

  1. Disturb the sufferer’s life in some way, i.e. they degrade the person’s ability to function optimally in day to day life. 
  2. Make the affected person avoid the specific situation, or feared object.
  3. People with phobias are constantly troubled with thoughts about the dreaded object or situation, i.e, there is anticipating anxiety
  4. The exposure to the feared object or situation triggers panic attacks in the patient.
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