What Are Phobias?

Health Writer

Phobias are not just an intense fear; they are an irrational and unsubstantiated fear of an object or situation. The National Institute of Mental Health indicates that over 19.2 million Americans suffer from some type of specific phobia.

The Anxiety Disorders Association of America list some common phobias at:

  • Animals
  • Insects
  • Heights
  • Thunder
  • Driving
  • Public Transportation
  • Flying
  • Medical or Dental Procedures
  • Elevators

Children commonly have specific phobias or fears, but these are usually outgrown. Children may be afraid of the dark, afraid of strangers or afraid of thunder. They do not understand these fears are unreasonable. They only know they are afraid. They may cling to a caregiver, cry, or have tantrums. By adolescence, these fears are normally gone.

When specific fears or phobias develop during adolescence or adulthood, they do not usually go away without treatment. By this time, they can understand the fear is unreasonable, but even so they are not able to overcome it.

Often, teenagers and adults with specific phobias will avoid the situation or object that causes the fear. Although sometimes, this does not interfere with daily functioning, it can also have a tremendous impact on daily life. For example, if someone is afraid of riding in an elevator, to avoid this may greatly limit employment opportunities, where you live or receiving proper medical care, especially for people living or working in a city.

Symptoms of phobias do not just occur when the situation or object is present. Just thinking about or anticipating events or situations may cause anxiety symptoms to appear. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, when a person is exposed to the situation or object, they experience an immediate reaction or may experience a panic attack.

Symptoms

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

Treatment

Treatment for specific phobias can include both medication and behavioral therapy.

Cognitive Behavioral therapy

This type of therapy usually uses exposure therapy. A person is slowly introduced to the situation or object that causes the fear. A person is gradually exposed, often in steps, and in a way that makes them feel safe. For example, if someone is afraid of heights, they may be brought to different places, moving to a higher elevation, only when they feel comfortable and do not experience anxiety. A professional is with them at all times, helping them to feel secure in their environment. There are also "virtual" treatments, where people will be exposed to heights via a screen rather than in person. Exposure therapy is best accomplished with an experienced therapist that specializes in anxiety disorders.

Many patients are helped with this type of treatment. In addition, stress-reducing strategies can be taught and incorporated into the situation. Ideas such as deep breathing and relaxation techniques are helpful.

Medication

When specific phobias interfere with someone's life, medication, such as anti-anxiety medications, can be useful. These medications can be taken when an object or situation must be faced rather than on a daily basis.

Medications sometimes will allow a person to receive more benefit from behavioral therapy. Some of the considerations to consider before beginning medication are:

  • The severity of symptoms
  • Other medications you may take
  • Your current physical health

A medical doctor or a psychiatrist must prescribe medications. Many times the prescribing doctor will work as a member of a team, which can include psychologists, therapists, counselors or social workers. There are a few different types of medication currently prescribed for social anxiety:

Antidepressants have been found to be effective in treating anxiety disorders. These medications do require at least four to six weeks of treatment in order to determine their effectiveness. Patients must be willing to try medications for this period of time in order to allow them to work.

References:

"Phobias: What are Phobias", 2007, iSyke, Mental Health Matters

"Specific Phobias", Date Unknown, Anxiety Disorders Association of America

"Phobias and Fears", 2006, Aug 2, Melinda Smith, Helpguide.org

"Specific Phobias", 2008, June 26, national Institute of Mental Health