The Basics of Phobias
Phobias are irrational fears of things, events, or places that pose little or not threat of harm. Fear is a natural response to danger in humans, but phobias take fear to a whole new level. People who have phobias may experience a feeling of panic, horror, terror, uncontrollable thoughts, rapid heartbeat, nausea, heat flashes, diarrhea, sweating, dizziness, a feeling like choking, shortness of breath, tremors, a desire to escape, chest pain, and extreme dread. Many go to great lengths to avoid being in a situation where they may have to face the object, place, or situation they're afraid of.
A common phobia is Arachnophobia, or fear of spiders. Half of women and at least 10% of men suffer from an irrational fear of spiders. Arachnophobia is a fear that has been passed down culturally for hundreds of years. Some phobias seem very bazaar, like phagophobia, or fear of swallowing. People with this phobia may have choked, or seen some one choke at some point in their lives. Surviving this situation may have been so traumatic, it causes him or her severe panic and anxiety to swallow. They may attempt to avoid eating, drinking, or swallowing pills altogether, and may even go as far as not swallowing their own saliva. Both phobias cause the same paralyzing irrational symptoms, but one is passed down culturally, making it very common, and the other is situational, making it much rarer.
What causes phobias? There are many theories as to what causes phobias. Some psychologists believe phobias are passed on to children who watch their parents live with phobias. Others believe that they are situational, meaning they are caused by a traumatic event. Some believe it's a combination of genetics and situations, or abnormal neurotransmitters (substances in the brain such as serotonin).
There are three categories of phobias:
- Social Phobia
Social phobias are fears of being embarrassed in public. A person suffering from a social phobia feels extremely self-conscious in social situations because they feel that they'll be judged or humiliated by something they do. Most people suffering from a social phobia will do whatever it takes to avoid speaking, eating, or drinking in front of others. It's believed that the causes of social phobias are a mixture of genetic shyness, and a traumatic event. An example could be a little girl who gave a speech in class, and something embarrassing happened. Maybe she accidentally burped, and the whole class laughed. Giving a speech in front of a group of people can cause plenty of fear. Adding embarrassment to that fear could easily make speaking in public impossible for the little girl for the rest of her life, especially if everyone made fun of her for it.
- Specific Phobias
Specific phobias are characterized by irrational fear of a specific place, object, or situation. People with specific phobias will do whatever it takes to completely avoid whatever they are afraid of, such as spiders, even though they know there is no danger. These phobias can disrupt routines, force people to miss out on events, and reduce self-esteem. Most of these phobias develop in childhood, but don't cause problems until adolescence or adulthood. The cause seems to be traumatic events in a person's past, or information being repeated over and over again until it instills fear. One example of the latter is telling a child that any plane can drop an atom bomb. At first, it hardly seems rational, but over time, hearing it over and over again will cause that child to be afraid of planes to the point that it's irrational. It's estimated that 5-12% of Americans have specific phobias.
Agoraphobia is the fear of being in a public place and not being able to escape. This fear is so gripping, that most people suffering from it become homebound. The cause of Agoraphobia is not completely known. Most psychologists believe that it's a combination of genetics, psychological traits, and experiences. Some studies claim that brain abnormalities may be to blame.
Although phobias feel like they rule your entire life, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Treatment is extremely successful. The first step is to see a psychiatrist to determine the extent of treatment needed. Most cases are treated using a combination of cognitive and behavioral therapy, although severe cases may include medications. Cognitive therapy gets down to the root of the problem, and identifies where the phobia comes from. It looks at the thought process, and how one perceived the event causing the phobia. Gaining an understanding of the cause of your phobia makes it easier to understand, and takes the power from the phobia and gives it to the patient. At this point, one learns how to minimize the negatives and maximize the positives of the situation, changing the thought process, or how you think about the phobia. Once you finish cognitive therapy, most psychiatrists round out treatment with behavioral therapy. This type of therapy teaches techniques to end the behaviors you've developed while living with this fear. A therapist may teach deep breathing exercises, or relaxation techniques, and over time, the fear dissipates. Exposure therapy may be used as well. This is when you're exposed repeatedly to the thing you're afraid of, showing you that no harm comes to you, desensitizing you to the object, place, or situation, and lessening the fear.
Phobias may seem like they control your world. If they go untreated, eventually they will, but if treated, a person can learn how to live without fear. The first step is reaching out for help, either to your doctor, to a psychiatrist, or even finding a local support group. Irrational fear is no way to live, so if you think you may be suffering from a phobia, please get help as soon as possible, and start living without fear.