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What Is A Phobia?


Scared Boy in Dentists Chair
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Question: What Is A Phobia?

Phobias Defined

According to the American Psychiatric Association, a phobia is an irrational and excessive fear of an object or situation. In most cases, the phobia involves a sense of endangerment or a fear of harm. For example, those suffering from agoraphobia fear being trapped in an inescapable place or situation.

Symptoms of Phobias

Phobic symptoms can occur through exposure to the fear object or situation, or sometimes simply thinking about the feared object can lead to a response. Common symptoms associated with phobias include:

  • Dizziness

  • Breathlessness

  • Nausea

  • A sense of unreality

  • Fear of dying

In some cases, these symptoms can escalate into a full-scale anxiety attack. As a consequence of these symptoms, some individuals begin to isolate themselves, leading to severe difficulties in daily life. In other cases, the individual may seek out medical care due to a constant concern with imagined illnesses or imminent death.

Types of Phobias

There are three types of phobias:
  1. Social phobias—fear of social situations.

  2. Agoraphobia—fear of being trapped in an inescapable place or situation.

  3. Specific phobias—fear of a specific object (such as snakes).
There are four major types of specific phobias:
  1. The natural environment—fear of lightening, water, storms, etc.

  2. Animal—fear of snakes, rodents, spiders, etc.

  3. Medical—fear of seeing blood, receiving injections, visiting a doctor, etc.

  4. Situational—fear of bridges, leaving the home, driving, etc.

Prevalence of Phobias

Phobias are actually quite common, affecting more than 10% of the U.S. population. Phobias are the most common mental disorder in the United States, but far more women than men are affected by phobias. In many cases, people are able to recognize that their fear is irrational and therefore take steps to overcome their phobia. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, only about 10 percent of reported cases become life-long phobias.

Treatments for Phobias

There are a number of treatment approaches for phobias. The effectiveness of a treatment depends on the individual and the type of phobia. These are just a few potential phobia treatments:

In exposure treatments, the patient is exposed to the fear object in order to help them overcome their fear. One type of exposure treatment is flooding, in which the patient is confronted by the fear object for an extended length of time without the opportunity to escape. The goal of this method is to help the individual face their fear and realize that the fear object will not harm them.

Another method often used in phobia treatment is counter-conditioning. In this method, the patient is taught a new response to the fear object. Rather that panic in the face of the feared object or situation, the client learns relaxation techniques to replace anxiety and fear. This new behavior is incompatible with the previous panicked response, so the phobic response gradually fades. Counter-conditioning is often used with patients who are unable to handle exposure treatments.

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