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- What is a Phobia?
- Diagnosing Phobias
- What Causes Phobias?
- Help for Phobias
- More Information on Phobias
What is a Phobia?
When a fear severely impairs a person’s ability to function properly, they would be diagnosed as having a phobia. A phobia is characterized by an irrational fear of a specific object or situation that interferes with an individual’s ability to function.
The feared object or situation may or may not be something that is dangerous. For example, a person can have a phobia or a fear of mice, dirt or going to the dentist. Or the fear may have potential danger such as a snake, or heights, but the fear is excessive and exaggerated.
It is a good idea to make an appointment with a psychologist if you feel your fear has reached phobic proportions. The psychologist will assess you by asking about your fear, what triggers it and how it is disrupting your life.
Phobias often occur along with other disorders and so your psychologist will also try to rule out other problems such as another category of anxiety disorder, depression or substance abuse before a diagnosis of a specific Phobia is made. You will probably also be asked questions about your family history and details about your childhood development.
Symptoms of a Phobia
People with Phobias develop "safe places" (usually their own home), but it may also include any other frequented areas where they feel psychologically safe and secure. In addition, they often develop "safe people" with whom they feel totally comfortable and can depend on should something happen.
When agoraphobics leave these people or places of safety, they often experience symptoms of extreme anxiety or a panic attack. This results in obsessive avoidance behavior (they may only want to shop at a particular shopping mall and will drive to the next suburb to do so) and in extreme cases Agoraphobics live a life of recluse, seldom stepping out their front door.
Who Suffers from Phobias? Is there a Cure?
Main causes of phobias inlude past traumas and generally develop in late adolescence or early adulthood. Phobias tend to affect more women than men. This is a very limiting and isolating disorder that can to take control of a person's life – adversely affecting daily function. However, one of the facts about Phobias is that they are treatable and it is never too late to reclaim a panic-free life!
What Causes Phobias?
Main causes of phobias include:
Direct Experience - This is when a person develops a phobia after a particularly bad experience. A child that is bitten by a dog may develop a phobia of dogs, or an individual that was trapped in an elevator for hours may develop claustrophobia.
A False Alarm - This occurs when a person has an unexpected feeling of panic or a panic attack during a certain situation. The individual then associates this alarm response with that particular situation. For example, many people with a phobia of driving haven’t been in a car accident, but have experienced a panic attack while driving.
Observing Others - In some cases it is simply enough to watch or even hear someone else’s awful experience. A phobia of doctors can develop after a child hears another child’s anguished screams coming from the doctor’s office. Phobias may also develop when children observe the behavior of a phobic parent.
Being Told - Sometimes just being warned repeatedly about a certain danger can cause a phobia. A child who has a fretful parent who continually warns of the danger of snakes may develop a phobia of snakes, despite never having seen one in real life.
Help for Phobias
As with other psychological ailments, a holistic approach has proven beneficial in treating phobias the main causes of phobias, while also incorporating mainstream and complementary treatments along with balanced diet and exercise.
Treatment Options for Phobias
The Conventional Approach
Many people with debilitating phobias are prescribed scheduled drugs to control their anxiety. These may include anti-anxiety drugs such as benzodiazepines, Buspar or antidepressants such as Prozac. Be sure that you understand and research the side effects and potential for addiction when accepting a prescription for any psychiatric drug and be aware that there are alternatives.
Alternative or Complementary approaches
Research has shown that anxiety in general (including phobias) responds best to a combination of treatment modalities. A more holistic approach would include appropriate therapeutic treatment by a registered psychologist, as well as the use of natural remedies, relaxation techniques and other treatment methods such as hypnotherapy or acupuncture.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Desensitization or exposure therapy is the most common method of treating phobias. This method includes gradual exposure to the feared object or situation at a gentle and understanding pace. If you are afraid of dogs, this therapy will encourage you to speak about dogs, look at pictures of them, be in the same room as one and eventually touch one.
All this will take time and you will be encouraged to go at a pace which is least distressing for you, while still making steady progress. CBT will also challenge your thoughts about your phobia and change them into more positive and empowering thoughts, giving you control over your fears.
Meditation, deep breathing and muscle relaxation are a few techniques that have been shown to reduce anxiety and clear the mind of unwanted thoughts and concerns. These techniques are often practiced along with CBT to help you manage your fear as you face it.
More Information on Phobias
Other Disorders Related to Phobias
Having a Specific Phobia can lead to poor coping strategies and result in other problems such as depression, isolation, and substance abuse. It is also not uncommon to find that an individual has more than one phobia, or has a specific phobia as well as another anxiety disorder.
Tips for Coping with Phobias
- Take small steps towards overcoming phobias. If you attempt to rush into it, you may feel over-whelmed and discouraged. Similarly, if you avoid taking any steps, you may never conquer your fear!
- Learn relaxation techniques to help you manage your anxiety and fear. This can be done by consulting a psychologist or by the use of a self help CD, especially designed for this purpose.
- Positive Thinking! Keep optimistic when facing your fears by reminding yourself that you have the power of overcoming phobias and that there is no real danger.
- Take steps to empower yourself in other areas of your life. Take up a hobby or sport, join a club or take a self-help course. This often has a ‘spill over effect’ on anxiety in general. If you help yourself to feel more confident, you will feel more in control of your situation and more able to conquer your fears.
- Read as much as you can about your condition. There are many self help books with valuable tips, facts about phobias, and advice on overcoming phobias.
Determining the Seriousness of Fears
Little anxieties and unreasonable fears are a normal part of growing up. Most children go through stages where they are afraid of the dark or loud thunderstorms, but they quickly grow out of these fears with time.
It is only when these fears are causing considerable disruption in their daily routine and are not normal fears for their age that you should seek help. Try helping your child through these fears by noting the following facts about phobias:
- Acknowledge that the fear is real. You may be certain that there is nothing to fear, but to your child that fear is very real. Telling children that they are just being silly is not going to make that fear any less.
- Don’t accommodate your child’s fears. If your child fears dogs, don’t purposefully avoid all dogs as this will reinforce the need for avoidance and confirm the reality of the danger.
- Talk to your child about his or her fear. There may have been a triggering event that needs to be spoken about, or your child may have mistaken information that needs to be corrected.
- Remind your child of other past fears that he or she managed to overcome. This might give your child the confidence needed to face current fears.
- Teach your child coping strategies such as deep breathing and self-reassurance so that the feelings of anxiety become more manageable.
People in History with Phobias
Famous people who either presently suffer or have once suffered from specific phobias include:
- Aretha Franklin (singer), Whoopi Goldberg (actress), Billy Bob Thornton (actor) and Muhammad Ali (boxing champion) all suffered from Aviophobia – a fear of flying
- Natalie Wood (actress) was hydrophobic - a fear of water
- Tennis star Andre Agassi suffers from arachnophobia – fear of spiders
- Author Anne Rice has stated that she suffers from ahluophobia – fear of the dark
- Adolf Hitler was claustrophobic – fear of enclosed spaces
- Napoleon Bonaparte (emperor of France), suffered from ailurophobia - fear of cats
- Composer Fredric-Francois Chopin had a fear of being buried alive (Taphephobia) as did Hans Christian Anderson