A phobia is an excessive and irrational fear reaction. If you have a phobia, you may experience a deep sense of dread or panic when you encounter the source of your fear. The fear can be of a certain place, situation, or object. Unlike general anxiety disorders, a phobia is usually connected to something specific.
The impact of a phobia can range from annoying to severely disabling. People with phobias often realize their fear is irrational, but they’re unable to do anything about it. Such fears can interfere with your work, school, and personal relationships.
An estimated 19 million Americans have a phobia that causes difficulty in some area of their lives. Seek the help of your doctor if you have a fear that prevents you from leading a normal life.
Genetic and environmental factors can cause phobias. Children who have a close relative with an anxiety disorder are at risk for developing a phobia. Distressing events such as nearly drowning can bring on a phobia. Exposure to confined spaces, extreme heights, and animal or insect bites can all be sources of phobias.
People with ongoing medical conditions or health concerns often have phobias. There is a high incidence of people developing phobias after traumatic brain injuries. Substance abuse and depression are also connected to phobias.
The American Psychiatric Association recognizes more than 100 different phobias. Here are a few of the most common.
Agoraphiobia is a fear of places or situations that you can’t escape from. The word itself refers to “fear of open spaces.” People with agoraphobia fear being in large crowds or trapped outside the home. They often avoid social situations altogether and stay inside their homes.
Many people with agoraphobia fear they may have a panic attack in a place where they can’t escape. Those with chronic health problems may fear they will have a medical emergency in a public area or where no help is available.
Social phobia is also referred to as “social anxiety disorder.” This is extreme worry about social situations that can lead to self-isolation. A social phobia can be so severe that the simplest interactions, such as ordering at a restaurant or answering the telephone, can cause panic. Those with social phobia will often go out of their way to avoid public situations.
Many people dislike certain situations or objects, but to be a true phobia, the fear must interfere with your daily life. Some of the most common include the following.
Glossophobia: Performance anxiety, or the fear of speaking in front of an audience. People with this phobia have severe physical symptoms when they even think about being in front of a group of people.
Acrophobia: The fear of heights. People with this phobia will avoid mountains, bridges, or the higher floors of buildings. Symptoms include vertigo, dizziness, sweating, and feeling as if you’ll pass out or lose consciousness.
Claustrophobia: The fear of enclosed or tight spaces. Severe claustrophobia can be especially disabling if it prevents you from riding in cars or elevators.
Aviatophobia: The fear of flying.
Dentophobia: Fear of the dentist or dental procedures. This phobia generally develops after an unpleasant experience at a dentist’s office. It can be harmful if it prevents you from obtaining needed dental care.
Hemophobia: Fear of blood or injury. A person with hemophobia may faint when they come in contact with their own or another person’s blood.
Arachnophobia: Fear of spiders.
Cynophobia: Fear of dogs.
Ophidiophobia: Fear of snakes.
Nyctophobia: Fear of the nighttime or darkness. This phobia almost always begins as a typical childhood fear. When it progresses past adolescence, it’s considered a phobia.
Those with a genetic predisposition to anxiety may be at a high risk for developing phobias. Age, socioeconomic status, and gender only seem to be risk factors for certain phobias. For example, women are more likely to have animal phobias. Children or people with a low socioeconomic status are more likely have social phobias. Men make up the majority of those with dentist and doctor phobias.
The most common and disabling symptom of a phobia is a panic attack. Features of a panic attack include:
- pounding or racing heart
- shortness of breath
- rapid speech or inability to speak
- dry mouth
- upset stomach or nausea
- elevated blood pressure
- trembling or shaking
- chest pain or tightness
- choking sensation
- dizziness or lightheadedness
- profuse sweating
- sense of impending doom
A person with a phobia doesn’t have to have panic attacks for accurate diagnosis.
Treatment for phobias can involve therapeutic techniques, medications, or a combination of both.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most commonly used therapeutic treatment for phobias. CBT involves exposure to the source of the fear, but in a controlled setting. This treatment can decondition people and reduce anxiety.
The therapy focuses on identifying and changing negative thoughts, dysfunctional beliefs, and negative reactions to fear. New CBT techniques use virtual reality technology to safely expose people to the sources of their phobias.
Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can help calm both emotional and physical reactions to fear. Often, the combination of medication and professional therapy makes the biggest difference.
If you have a phobia, it’s critical that you seek treatment. Overcoming phobias can be difficult, but there’s hope. With the right treatment, you can learn to manage your fears and lead a productive, fulfilling life.