What is a phobia?
A phobia is an anxiety disorder where you have a deep-rooted, overwhelming and debilitating irrational fear of something that generally speaking poses little or no threat to you. It usually takes the shape of a fear of an object, place, situation, feeling or animal (including insects). When a person has a phobia that becomes very severe, they might find that they organise their life around avoiding the thing that causes the anxiety. This may lead to them limiting their day-to-day life and can cause discomfort and distress.
What causes phobias?
Phobias don’t have a single cause, but there are a number of associated factors. For example:
- a phobia may be associated with a particular incident or trauma;
- a phobia may be a learned response that a person develops early in life from a parent or sibling (brother or sister);
- genetics may play a role – there’s evidence to suggest that some people are born with a tendency to be more anxious than others.
“Specific” (simple) and “complex” phobias
Phobias may be “specific” phobias which are specific to a situation, object, animal or activity or they may be “complex” such as agoraphobia or social phobia (also known as social anxiety disorder (SAD) (see my page on SAD for more information http://montblancsalus.com/socialanxietysad/).
Specific phobias tend to fall into (but not limited to) the following categories:
- Situational phobias such as a fear of: flying; confined spaces; driving; dentists; bridges & tunnels;
- Natural/environmental phobias such as a fear of open spaces; heights; storms; thunder; water; and the dark;
- Animal phobias such as a fear of spiders; dogs; snakes; insects; rodents or other animals or creatures;
- Blood/injection/injury phobias such as a fear of blood; needles; germs; surgery; or hospital visits;
- Sexual phobias such as performance anxiety or the fear of getting a sexually transmitted disease; and
- Other phobias such as a fear of vomiting; illness; death; loud noises; or specific foodstuffs.
Complex phobias often tend to be more debilitating. They often develop in adolescence or adulthood and are usually associated with a deep-rooted fear of a particular situation or circumstances.
The most common complex phobias are agoraphobia and social anxiety disorder (SAD) also known as social phobia or performance phobia.
Agoraphobia is often described as a fear of open spaces, but it’s much more complex. Someone with agoraphobia will often feel anxious about being in a place or situation where escaping may be difficult if they have a panic attack.
Agoraphobia and the anxiety related to it often results in the person avoiding situations such as:
- being alone;
- being in crowded places, such as busy restaurants or supermarkets; and/or
- travelling on public transport.
SAD is where a person experiences anxiety in or around social situations which can range from simply meeting new people or forming new relationships to eating out and speaking in public for fear of being negatively judged or criticised. Where SAD is particularly severe, it may stop you carrying out normal day to day activities such as meeting friends socially or giving a presentation at work. It can be very limiting when you feel you have to avoid normal everyday situations.
What symptoms might you feel if you have a phobia?
Symptoms relating to most anxiety disorders might be experienced. These can include:
- feeling faint, dizzy, or unsteady;
- feeling nauseous;
- feeling as though you have a dry mouth;
- heart palpitations or an increased heart rate;
- feeling a tightness in the chest; or
- having an upset stomach.
Often a person with a phobia will not experience any anxiety-related symptoms until they come into contact with the thing which is the cause of the phobia, although in severe cases, even the thought of or an image relating to the case is enough to make the person feel anxious or panicky. If you don’t come into contact with the source of your phobia very often, it may not affect your everyday life, but it may be affecting certain decisions you make (i.e. you might struggle to go to the doctors or dentist when you need to if you have a needle or blood phobia). However, if you have a complex phobia such as agoraphobia (see below), you might simply find leading a normal life daily life difficult.
Phobias aren’t often formally diagnosed. However if you have one, you will usually be aware of the problem.
Often a person will choose to simply live with a phobia, taking care to avoid the object or situation they’re afraid of. However, if you have a phobia, and find yourself continually trying to avoid what you’re afraid you will just intensify the situation and make it worse. Engaging in negative coping strategies won’t help to break the cycle.
If you have a phobia, you can seek help from your GP or you can contact me directly.
Contact me for a free 20 minute face-to-face meeting or to arrange a 90 minute initial consultation.