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What Are Phobias?

Do you know someone with an intense fear of dogs? Or of flying? Or heights? All of these fears are considered to be “specific phobias.”  Phobias are not just an intense fear, they are an irrational and unsubstantiated fear. For example, if there is a growling dog in front of your path, it would be normal, and healthy, to be afraid and to take steps to avoid this dog. However, when someone is afraid of all dogs, whether they pose a threat or not, it becomes irrational. People with specific phobias feel powerless to stop the feelings of fear they experience. Even thinking about the situation or object can cause extreme anxiety.

Symptoms of specific phobia are the same as for many anxiety disorders and can include the following:

  • Headache
  • Stomachache
  • Muscle tension
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath
  • Irritability
  • Trouble concentrating

According to Mental-Health-Matters.com, one in ten people have some type of specific phobia. Specific phobias are common in children, such as fear of the dark. Many childhood phobias, however, tend to disappear as the child gets older. Phobias appearing in adolescence or in adulthood do not go away as easily. Mental-Health-Matters.com indicates only 20 percent of phobias in adults will disappear without treatment. 

Phobias can be a fear of a situation or of an object. Often, when the object or situation is one that can be avoided and the fear does not interfere with daily life, people do not seek out treatment. Even though the phobia may not interfere with daily life, it may be considered in life choices, both personal and career, based on trying to avoid a situation or an object. For example, while flying may make many people nervous, when you avoid an important event, such as a family wedding, because of your fear of getting on and flying, then the phobia is interfering with your life, even though it has not caused you “hardship.”

Cognitive behavioral therapy is frequently helpful in treating specific phobias. This type of treatment uses exposure therapy to desensitize a person to whatever is causing them fear. For example, if someone has a dog phobia, they may be slowly introduced to dogs by having a dog across the room and then moved closer until the person becomes more comfortable. The person would continue this treatment until their fear fades and they are able to be in the same room as a dog without feeling anxiety.

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