More Slideshows from eMedicineHealth
What Is a Phobia?
A phobia is defined as the unrelenting fear of a situation, activity, or thing that causes one to want to avoid it. Phobias are largely underreported, probably because many phobia sufferers find ways to avoid the situations to which they are phobic. Therefore, statistics that estimate how many people suffer from phobias vary widely, but at minimum, phobias afflict more than 6 million people in the United States. Other facts about phobias include that these illnesses have been thought to affect up to 28 out of every 100 people, and in all western countries, phobias strike 7%-13% of the population. Women tend to be twice as likely to suffer from a phobia compared to men.
What Are the Different Types of Phobias?
Having a phobia about something is very different from everyday worry or stress. There are several types of phobias, including social, situational, animal, and specific phobias (fear of particular items or objects). While the list of phobias is almost endless, we'll take a look at some of the most common phobias on the next slides.
Also known as social anxiety disorder, social phobia is an excessive fear of embarrassment in social situations that is extremely intrusive and can have debilitating effects on personal and professional relationships. Examples include fears of public speaking, meeting new people, and other social situations.
Agoraphobia is a fear of being outside or otherwise being in a situation from which one either cannot escape or from which escaping would be difficult or humiliating. Although agoraphobia, like other mental disorders, is caused by a number of factors, it also tends to run in families and for some people, may have a clear genetic factor contributing to its development.
Claustrophobia is an abnormal and persistent fear of closed spaces, of being closed in or being shut in, as in elevators, tunnels, or any other confined space. The fear is excessive and quite common.
Zoophobia is a term that encompasses fears of specific types of animals such as spiders (arachnophobia), snakes (ophidiophobia), birds (ornithophobia), bees (apiphobia), etc. It is a zooful of beastly phobias.
Acrophobia is an abnormally excessive and persistent fear of heights. Sufferers experience severe anxiety even though they usually realize that, as a rule, heights pose no real threat to them.
An abnormal and persistent fear of flying is called aerophobia. This phobia generally develops after a person witnesses a plane crash or loses a family member in a plane crash or accident. Sufferers experience severe anxiety even though they usually realize that flying does not pose a threat commensurate with their fear.
Blood-injection-injury phobias consist of several specific phobias including fear of blood (hemophobia), injury phobia, and fear of receiving an injection (trypanophobia or aichmophobia) or other invasive medical procedures.
What Are the Effects of Phobias?
If left untreated, a phobia may worsen to the point at which the person's life is seriously affected, both by the phobia itself and/or by attempts to avoid or conceal it. In fact, some people have had problems with friends and family, failed in school, and/or lost jobs while struggling to cope with a severe phobia. There may be periods of spontaneous improvement, but a phobia does not usually go away unless the person receives treatments designed specifically to help phobia sufferers. Alcoholics can be up to 10 times more likely to suffer from a phobia than those who are not alcoholics, and phobic individuals can be twice as likely to be addicted to alcohol than those who have never been phobic.
What Are the Causes and Risk Factors for Phobias?
While there is no one specific known cause for phobias, it is thought that phobias run in families, are influenced by culture, and can be triggered by life events. Immediate family members of people with phobias are about three times more likely to also suffer from a phobia than those who do not have such a family history. Phobia sufferers have been found to be more likely to manage stress by avoiding the stressful situation and by having difficulty minimizing the intensity of the fearful situation.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Phobias?
Symptoms of phobias often involve having a panic attack -- in that they include feelings of panic, dread, or terror, despite recognition that those feelings are excessive in relationship to any real danger -- as well as physical symptoms like shaking, sweating, rapid heartbeat, trouble breathing, and an overwhelming desire to escape the situation that is causing the phobic reaction. Also, extreme measures are sometimes taken to escape the situation.
How Are Phobias Assessed?
Many health-care providers may help diagnose phobias, including licensed mental-health therapists, family physicians, or other primary-care medical providers, specialists whom you see for a medical condition, psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers. If one of these professionals suspects that you may be suffering from a phobia, you will likely be asked a number of questions to understand all the symptoms you may be experiencing, and you may need to submit to a medical interview and physical examination. A phobia may be associated with a number of other mental -health conditions, especially other anxiety disorders. As anxiety disorders in general may be associated with a number of medical conditions or can be a side effect of various medications, routine laboratory tests are often performed during the initial evaluation to rule out other possible causes of the symptoms.
How Are Phobias Treated?
Helping those who suffer from phobias by supportively and gradually exposing them to circumstances that are increasingly close to the one they are phobic about (desensitization) is one way phobias are treated.
A second method is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which has been found to significantly decrease phobic symptoms by helping the phobia sufferer change his or her way of thinking. CBT uses three techniques to accomplish this goal:
- Didactic component: This phase helps to set up positive expectations for therapy and promote the phobia sufferer's cooperation.
- Cognitive component: It helps to identify the thoughts and assumptions that influence the person's behavior, particularly those that may predispose him or her to being phobic.
- Behavioral component: This employs behavior-modifying techniques to teach the individual with a phobia more effective strategies for dealing with problems.
What Medications Treat Phobias?
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) medications are often used to treat phobias, particularly when desensitization and CBT are inadequately effective. These medications affect levels of serotonin in the brain. Examples of these medications include fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), fluvoxamine (Luvox), citalopram (Celexa), and escitalopram (Lexapro).
Phobias are also sometimes treated using beta-blocker medications, which block the effects that adrenaline has on the body. An example of a beta blocker is propranolol (Inderal). These disorders are less commonly treated with drugs in a medication class known as benzodiazepines. This class of medications causes relaxation but is used much less often these days to treat anxiety due to the possibility of addiction and the risk of overdose, especially if taken when alcohol is also being consumed. Examples of medications from that group include diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), lorazepam (Ativan), and clonazepam (Klonopin).
Where Can People Get Information and Help for Phobias?
The listed associations can provide more information about phobias.