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Do you suffer from a phobia?
Disha Pinge
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July 20, 2007

A phobia is essentially a human being's irrational fear of something -- it could be an object, an animal, a situation or an environment. Such fears are persistent, intense, excessive and unrealistic, which is primarily why phobias are deemed irrational. A clinically phobic person's reactions to what scares him/ her may seem extreme and the fright may not appear to be justified.

Types of phobias

Phobias can be broadly classified into three groups, depending upon the situation that brings on fear:

~ Social phobias: Acute fears involving a host of social situations are collectively classified as social phobias. These fears are often mistaken for just shyness, but in fact involve a constant terror of public humiliation, self-consciousness and of being in the limelight. Someone suffering from a social phobia may either have social anxiety disorder, or then react to a particular social trigger.

Such people often avoid social situations and become particularly uneasy when in the company of unknown people. Fear of public scrutiny may cause the person to avoid people to the extent of not eating in restaurants or using public restrooms. Social phobias seem to run in families. People who have been shy or solitary as children, or who have a history of unhappy or negative social experiences in childhood, seem more likely to develop this disorder.

~ Specific phobias: These are related to a specific object, animal or insect, people, environment or situation. Presented here are a few common specific phobias:
Cynophobia: Fear of dogs or rabies
Ophidiophobia: Fear of snakes
Batophobia: Fear of height
Tachophobia: Fear of speed
Claustrophobia: Fear of closed spaces
Coulrophobia: Fear of clowns
Latrophobia: Fear of doctors, or of visiting the doctor

~ Agoraphobia: This is a generalised phobia individuals tend to have, of leaving home or a small, familiar comfort zone and of panic that might be brought on by making such a move. This is the only phobia that is treated as a medical condition.

Causes of phobias

Although the definite cause of phobias remains a mystery, these conditions are believed to be at least partly inherited and seem to run in the family. Specific phobias may develop from past experiences, especially in childhood. A bad experience with an object or situation is recorded in the brain by a substance called 'amygdale'. The past encounter invokes fear in a person when faced with a similar situation in the future. Amygdale keeps track of memory and emotions and signals that something is dangerous.

Social phobias also seems to run in families. People who have been shy or solitary as children, or who have a history of unhappy or negative social experiences in childhood, seem more likely to develop this disorder.

Agoraphobia is brought about by similar causes -- a person is likely to become phobic if he/ she has grown up seeing a parent or family member suffering from a phobia. Also, when parents are overcautious and exaggerate danger, children tend to become phobic. Phobias are a little more prevalent in women and very subjective. While some people have a natural tendency to be more cautious, others are bold and uninhibited. When cautiousness rises to the point of sheer panic, there is need for professional help.

Symptoms of phobias

The symptoms of a phobia can be severe and often cause an individual to be caught up in an embarrassing situation. A few of them are outlined here:

An individual suffering from a phobia experiences an unexplained, irrational fear of a specific element in his or her surroundings.

~ When the individual in question is suddenly faced with the trigger, he or she will immediately plunge into a state of panic. Severe anxiety may cause the person to escape such a situation at the first opportunity.

~ The individual knows that the fear is irrational, but is unable to control it -- if he/ she is unable to run away from what is feared, he/ she undergoes great distress and trauma.

~ The individual's extreme behaviour interferes with his/ her ability to function normally in any situation. In extreme cases, he/ she is unable to lead a normal life.

~ When the panic attack occurs, the individual is unable to control the fear. There is profuse sweating, palpitation, avoidance behaviour, difficulty breathing, intense anxiety, trembling and hot flushes.

~ Besides irrational fear, the other symptoms of phobic neurosis are physical reactions like headaches, tension, back pain, dizziness and stomach upsets.

Diagnosis of phobias

If you feel that your anxiety is bordering on a phobia, seek professional help at the earliest. When fear begins to interfere with you work and daily routine and relationships, going to a psychiatrist is the only solution. In very few cases, the phobia goes away on its own without professional help. When you go to a psychiatrist, both a physical and psychological evaluation will be conducted. The physical exam can help rule out any physical causes of your anxiety. The psychological exam will tell about your family's history and whether other family members have had phobias. It will also tell the doctor about any experience or trauma that may have triggered the phobia. Then the mental health professional will ask you to explain your symptoms and when and how they occur.

One of the biggest problems with diagnosing a phobia is to distinguish it from other psychological disorders like schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder and paranoia. As there are no laboratory tests for phobias, it makes them very difficult to diagnose. 

Treatment

Most people are able to overcome their phobias at some point or the other. The most common form of treatment is behavioural therapy.

The therapist gradually makes the patient face the object of fear. This is done slowly and tactfully. At the same time, the patient is made to relax. Relaxation techniques include relaxed breathing, muscle relaxation training, self-talk, or soothing guided mental imagery. The two elements of fear and relaxation help the brain neutralise the fear and treat the phobic stimulus as any other object which doesn't induce fright. Sometimes, hypnosis is also used. For temporary relief, the doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety pills or anti-depressants too.

Prevention of phobias

There is are no preventive measures one can take when it comes to phobias. However, it is advisable to reduce anxiety levels if you are naturally inclined to be nervous. To do this, avoid substances that make you high-strung -- these include tea (tannin), coffee and cola drinks (caffeine), cigarettes and other tobacco products (nicotine). To avoid children from becoming prone to phobias, never overemphasise danger. Keep the legendary 'boogeyman' away -- scaring a child can have adverse effects on his/ her psyche.

Treatment of phobias is crucial -- if left untreated, they can lead to other illnesses like other anxiety disorders, depression and substance abuse. It is better to seek help when the problem is small. After all, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.


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