What is a phobia?
A phobia is an extreme fear of an object or situation. This fear is much more intense
than the fear most other people experience in relation to the same thing. The result of such intense fear is often a strong desire to avoid the feared situation. A person who is phobic often doesn’t worry about their fears when they are in a “safe” place.
However, when they come face-to-face the thing that they fear, they feel very frightened and panicky. They may try to escape as quickly as they can.
There are many different kinds of phobias. Phobias range from simple to complex. A simple phobia is a fear of a single object or situation. People with simple phobias usually experience their symptoms if they are faced with the object or situation that they fear. They also may feel anxious if they think they may come into contact with the feared situation in the near future. The rest of the time, though, they are symptom-free. There are many different kinds of simple phobias. Some of the most common are listed below:
- Fear of spiders
- Fear of heights
- Fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia)
- Fear of blood
- Fear of needles
- Fear of snakes
- Fear of thunderstorms
- Fear of wasps or bees
- Fear of flying
There are hundreds of simple phobias that are not listed here.
How phobias can affect you
Here is an example of someone with a specific phobia:
For as long as he could remember, Simon had been very afraid of spiders. He wasn’t sure how or why he had developed such a fear, since he had never been bitten by a spider and could not remember any specific scary incident that had made him afraid, although he recalled that his mother had also been fearful of spiders. He noticed that his fear seemed to increase in intensity as he got older. Whenever he saw a spider, even a small one, he began to feel very panicky: his heart started to race, and he started sweating and trembling. He would often shout to his wife, and then quickly leave the room. He described feeling afraid that spiders were faster than he was and would certainly bite him if they had the chance. Simon avoided spending time in the park with his daughter because he was fearful of encountering a spider, and even
started avoiding going out in the garden. He often checked corners and doorframes for cobwebs; whenever he saw a cobweb, he started to feel very anxious, and quickly asked his wife to sweep it away. He noticed that he even felt anxious when he saw a picture of a spider in a book he was reading to his daughter; when this happened, he quickly turned the page.
Where do phobias come from?
Phobias can have several different causes. In some cases, people “learn” to be afraid. For example, a child playing with a dog may pull its tail and get bitten. The child responds (not surprisingly) with fear and distress, and learns to fear and avoid dogs in the future – even though not all dogs are dangerous.
Some people with phobias cannot remember a specific incident that triggered their fear. These people may have learned to be afraid from other people. For example, a child may have had a parent (or someone else) who taught them that dogs are scary.
This child may grow up to be an adult with a dog phobia. Another child might notice that his mother is afraid of dogs and believe that he should be scared of dogs too. This child may also grow up to be an adult with a dog phobia. This means that people can learn to be afraid of things, even if they never have a scary encounter of their own.
For many people with phobias, it is not entirely clear what caused their phobia.
However, it is certainly not necessary to know the exact cause of a phobia in order to get rid of it.
When people come into contact with the thing that they fear, they experience a many different symptoms. These symptoms can be categorised into three subgroups:
Physical symptoms: These include physical sensations such as increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, fast breathing, muscle tension or weakness, “butterflies in the stomach”, and so on.
Behavioural symptoms: These symptoms usually involve either “fleeing” (eg, moving speedily out of the way) or “freezing” (eg, feeling unable to move).
Emotional and cognitive symptoms: The emotion experienced is, of course, fear. Sometimes people might also experience other emotions, such as embarrassment or anger. People will often have very specific thoughts about the object or situation that they fear – for example, Simon feared that spiders would bite him and were extremely fast, making it very difficult for him to escape.
Why won’t phobic fear just go away?
The kinds of reactions described above actually prevent the symptoms from going away. These symptoms increase distress and make it last longer. They also lead to new symptoms, such as anxiety and dread when someone thinks that they may have to soon face the thing they fear.
The biggest roadblock to getting rid of phobic fear is avoidance. When someone is very fearful of something, they tend to avoid it. This helps in the short term – it prevents the person from becoming anxious. But there are big problems with avoidance. In the long run, avoidance keeps anxiety going. This is because it makes it very difficult to learn that the feared object or situation is not as scary as the person thinks it is. It also makes it very difficult for a phobic person to learn that if he or she faced the feared situation, his or her feelings of anxiety would decrease on their own. Avoidance also limits people – it means that they don’t get to do some things that they might actually enjoy.
Here is the issue: the more afraid you are of something, the more you avoid it, and the more you avoid it, the worse the fear gets! Remember Simon’s example – he avoided going to the park or spending time in his garden because he was afraid of encountering a spider. This kind of avoidance prevented him from learning that he was unlikely to see a spider in either of these places, and even if he did, he was very unlikely to be bitten. It also prevented him from learning that if he went to the park and stayed their for a little while, his anxiety level would slowly come down.
The thoughts that people have in response to the feared object or situation can also be problematic. Very often, these thoughts have to do with what will happen when the person faces the feared situation – for example, Simon was afraid that if he was in the presence of a spider, he would be bitten (and maybe chased). Such thoughts may not be realistic, but they certainly provoke a great deal of anxiety.
Sometimes the reactions of other people can also help maintain phobic anxiety. Often, others will do things so that the phobic person does not have to face the thing(s) that they fear. In other words, they help the person avoid their fear, and thus never learn that the situation is not as scary as they think. Again, consider Simon’s example: he would call upon his wife to sweep away cobwebs and to rid the house of any spiders. Whenever she did so, it prevented him from learning that he did not need to be so afraid.
How to treat phobias
While medication and other therapies may provide some help, a more effective and longer term solution is CBT. This type of treatment teaches strategies to help you cope with your fear. Most of these strategies deal with avoidance. Remember, the more you avoid the thing that you fear, the worse the fear gets. The best way for you to be better able to cope with your fear is to slowly and gradually start to face your fear through CBT psychotherapy. Exposing yourself to the thing that you fear will help you learn two very important things: 1) that the situation that makes you so afraid is not as scary as you thought, and 2) that your anxiety will come down as you spend more time facing your fear. In the beginning, facing your fear can seem very frightening – and this is why this is best undertaken under the guidance of a CBT psychotherapist who will support you through this process using a very careful and controlled method.