Fear is an important emotion for survival. As unpleasant as fear may be, it serves as an alert that something is dangerous. For some people, however, feelings of intense fear can arise in response to certain objects, situations or places that they know are nonthreatening. These irrational, excessive fears are known as “phobias,” and they are among the most common anxiety disorders.
The medical community generally divides phobias into three main categories:
- Specific phobias: These phobias are directed towards specific things, such as a fear of heights (acrophobia) or a fear of thunder and lightening (astrophobia). Some of the most common phobias of this type are a fear of a specific animal, with arachnophobia (the fear of spiders) being the most common. Also on the most-common phobias list: a fear of snakes (ophidiophobia) and a fear of dogs (cynophobia). In at least in some cases, these phobias may be attributable to an unpleasant or frightening experience involving the animal.
- Social phobia: Sometimes called a “social anxiety disorder,” social phobia is one of the most common phobias. It is the fear of social situations or person-to-person interactions. This phobia can greatly affect social development and personal relationships.
- Agoraphobia: Also one of the more common phobias, agoraphobia refers to the fear of places that make a person feel trapped or unable to get away to a safe place. Such places can include crowded shopping malls or large open spaces with no place to hide. People with agoraphobia sometimes refuse to leave their homes in order to avoid their fears.
Symptoms of Phobias
The chronic symptom of a phobia is extreme avoidance of the feared object or situation. When that stimulus is encountered, the acute symptoms are those associated with anxiety and panic, such as:
- Heart palpitations
- Profuse sweating
- Trouble breathing.
Diagnosing and Treating Phobias
A physician diagnoses a phobia by interviewing patients about their symptoms, medical history and personal life experiences. To be diagnosed with a phobia, the patient must demonstrate an intense fear associated with the phobia’s trigger, persistent avoidance of that trigger and, at least in adults, an acknowledgement that the fear is unreasonable.
If the phobia impairs the patient’s ability to function or maintain relationships, treatment may be necessary. Treatment may include medications, such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs. These solutions tend to be helpful.
A type of psychotherapy known as exposure based therapy is an effective treatment for some phobias. Exposure based therapy introduces the patient to the object of fear in a safe, controlled environment in an effort to desensitize patients and teach them how to respond and cope.
American Psychiatric Association. (n.d.). Phobias. Retrieved July 18, 2010, from http://healthyminds.org/Main-Topic/Phobias.aspx.
Cherry, K. (n.d.). 10 common phobias. Retrieved July 18, 2010, from http://psychology.about.com/od/phobias/p/commonphobias.htm.
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2009). Phobias. Retrieved July 18, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/phobias/DS00272.