Phobia (General)

What is a Phobia?

A phobia is a fear of a thing or a situation that does not pose any real threat but cause anxiety and sometimes panic. Physical reactions are real and intense and the effects of a phobia can be long lasting. They can affect the way people handle social situation, work, and other parts of their lives. There are many types of phobias some of which include open spaces, closed spaces, snakes, elevators, and even fish. These are categorized into 3 main types of phobias:

  1. Specific – involves fear of a certain object or thing
  2. Social – involves fear of specific social situations
  3. Open spaces – also called agoraphobia; involves fear of anticipated situations such as crowds or public transportation

Not all phobias will require treatment; however, if a phobia affects life on a daily basis there are treatments that can minimize the effect of a phobia or even help someone eliminate it.

What are the Symptoms of a Phobia?

Those who have a phobia often experience panic attacks, which increases their fear. Panic attacks often include physiological reactions like increased heartbeat, sweating, and difficulty breathing.

People who have phobias will often avoid being in a situation where they may be confronted with their fear. It can impact their daily lives. Just thinking about a phobia can cause anxiety and panic. Children who have phobias may express it by crying, having tantrums, or being especially clingy to a parent.

Phobia (General) Causes

While the specific physiologic cause of phobias is unknown, there are many factors that can lead to their development. Phobias can often take root in childhood, though they develop in adulthood as well, and can be traced to a few factors. Exposure to traumatic experiences such as confinement in a small space, animal bites, incidents involving excessive heights, and other traumatic experiences can manifest in the development of a phobia. In addition, having parents or growing up with other family members who have a phobia or anxiety disorder is a risk factor. There are also additional external factors to consider in the development of phobias as well, including cultural influences. Having a history of depression or anxiety disorder also serves as a risk factor, and in combination with extrinsic factors can significantly increase the chances of developing a phobia. In addition, individuals with a history of substance abuse have been shown to have a predisposition toward the development of a phobia. Sustaining a traumatic brain injury is also a noted risk factor.

How is a Phobia Treated?

The type of phobia will usually determine the type of treatment that is used. Treatments can include behavior therapy or medications or a combination of the two.

There are two main types of behavior therapy. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) helps you look at your phobia differently, examine why you are afraid, and practice different ways of dealing with your phobia. Exposure therapy helps you minimize or eliminate the fear by bringing you into direct contact with the fear in controlled situations repeatedly until the fear is gone.

There are three main types of medications that may be used. Antidepressants or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) make use of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter in the brain that affects mood. Beta blockers minimize the effect of adrenaline, which is what causes things like sweaty palms, increased heart rate and other anxiety symptoms. Sedatives help you relax and reduces anxiety (note that sedatives can be addictive and should be avoided if you have a previous history of drug or alcohol dependence).

Phobias (General) Prevention

Given the unknown biologic mechanism for phobia development, methods for phobia prevention are largely unidentified. However, addressing the underlying risk factors for the development of phobias can be beneficial. Getting treatment for substance abuse is an effective method for risk reduction. Additionally, management of pre-existing depression and/or anxiety can significantly reduce the risk of developing a phobia. Treatment methods including cognitive behavioral therapy and pharmacologic intervention, such as antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, have been noted to reduce risk. Using a combination of these methods in individuals with significant depression and/or anxiety has been shown to be the most effective. Additionally, with instances of a family predisposition to phobias and anxiety, taking steps to mitigate the response to stressors and anxiety-producing situations can be effective in preventing the development of phobias for young family members. Taking external factors into consideration, developing familiarity with common phobia triggers prior to their development could be an effective strategy for phobia prevention.