A phobia is an anxiety disorder that is defined as an excessive, persistent, irrational fear of a thing or situation. While fear is a normal reaction to something that is a real threat or danger, a phobia is usually a fear that afflicts the sufferer when there is little or no danger, or the danger is imagined. It is an abnormal response that causes intense emotional, psychological, and even physical reactions. The phobia can affect someone’s ability to function normally in daily life, in that they may avoid certain situations at work, at home, or socially. Some phobias are manageable without the need for psychiatric treatment, but if you have a phobia that is affecting your daily living, you may benefit from therapy to help overcome it.
People of all ages and backgrounds can develop phobias. Typically they appear in childhood or adolescence and continue into adulthood. It is not known definitively what causes phobias, but it is likely that a variety of factors are involved, depending on the person. There may be environmental and psychological reasons, and some phobias may even have evolutionary roots. The fact that phobias can run in families indicates that genetics may play a role in some cases.
There is a seemingly endless variety of things about which people can have a phobia, but some common ones include fear of heights (acrophobia) and fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia). These are classified as specific phobias. One of the most common specific phobias is of animals: dogs, spiders, snakes, mice, and so on. Needless to say, when someone has a fear of situations or objects that are fairly prevalent in everyday life, the phobia can be severely disabling. A person with claustrophobia may be unable to be in an elevator, a crowded room, or a car without experiencing excessive fear and anxiety. Someone with a phobia of dogs will find it difficult to simply walk down the typical street without running into issues.
Another category of phobia is agoraphobia, which is the generalized fear of being alone in open, public spaces where there is no clear escape route. People who suffer from agoraphobia often are only comfortable in a “safe area,” somewhere that is known and familiar to them, such as home. When they venture outside this safe area they may experience panic attacks. They may avoid places such as shopping malls, crowded restaurants, bridges, busy streets or outdoor gatherings, or will only go to such places with a friend or family member. It is difficult to predict what type of situation will bring on a panic attack, as they may occur without warning and seemingly at random; this unpredictability then only makes the sufferer even more fearful of being anywhere unfamiliar. Someone with severe agoraphobia may reach the point where they cannot leave the house. Agoraphobia can also be connected to a specific phobia, such as fear of germs or social embarrassment.
The other main type is social phobia. One social phobia that many people have is a fear of public speaking; this is in fact the most common form. Someone with a social phobia may fear being watched, embarrassed, or humiliated while doing some specific activity in front of other people. This activity can be as simple as eating, buying clothes, writing, or urinating in a public restroom. Other people have what is called generalized social phobia (also known as social anxiety disorder), which is a fear of interpersonal interaction. This goes beyond mere shyness, as the person may have extreme difficulty with things such as expressing personal opinions, talking on the phone, talking to strangers, or being in any other type of social situation.
How do you know if you have a real phobia? People with phobias experience marked emotional and physical reactions to the source of their fear. Symptoms include:
- Feelings of terror, dread, or panic
- Rapid heart rate, shaking, shortness of breath
- Overwhelming desire to get away
- Automatic, uncontrollable reactions
- Taking extreme measures to avoid the situation or object
People with phobias also recognize that their fear is excessive and not reasonable based on the actual threat of danger posed by the feared object or situation.
If you have any sort of phobia that is interfering with your life on a day-to-day basis, you should seek out professional treatment. Phobias are treatable through a variety of methods, including both medication and therapy. Antidepressant medications such as SSRIs and MAOIs can be useful, and benzodiazepines can help control panic attacks during a phobic situation as well as the anxiety that comes from anticipating such a situation. In general, though, therapy is a better long-term treatment for phobias. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and systematic desensitization therapy, among other methods, can help patients learn to confront and control their reactions and ultimately overcome the irrational fears associated with their phobias. Many people find that after proper treatment the phobia disappears completely and they are able to live life normally again.