What is Phobia? What are the causes and methods of treatment?

Phobia is a form of stress disorder and is defined as a condition in which certain situations, living or non-living things or surroundings produce a high level of fear in the individual. Persons suffering from phobia experience certain dangers as much more threatening then these would normally require, and go to great lengths in avoiding these situations. When faced with the object of their phobia they feel a high level of anxiety which can manifest as a state of total panic or horror.

How does a phobia start?

A phobia starts at the stage when the person tries to avoid an encounter with the object of his fear, which can be an item, animal or a type of space, to the extent that he shapes his life around this effort. A phobia is much more severe and serious than an ordinary fear, and deeply affects the person’s life.

If the object of the phobia is something that the person is unlikely to encounter frequently (for instance a fear of snakes) the risk of it affecting the person’s daily life is small. However, in some complex forms of phobia the effects on the person’s life is much more serious (like in agoraphobia, where to person fears to step outside the house or be in crowded spaces, or like social phobia which is a fear of social situations such as public speaking).

How many kinds of phobia are there?

Phobias are discussed in terms of two main categories:

Specific phobia: a condition where certain specific living or non-living objects, spaces or activities produce excessive fear in the person. The most frequent ones in this category are listed below:

– fear of encountering animals like a dog, snake, spider, travelling to high-located spaces, entering water.

– Complex phobia: Like in social phobia and agoraphobia, the person’s fear and distress is not connected to one single object but arises in various different areas.

– Social phobia (social anxiety disorder): it is defined as an intense fear in certain social situations. It can be described as extreme anxiety experienced by the person in situations like weddings, conferences or before a social speech, where he may feel alienated or feel that all attention is placed on him. The underlying thoughts are the assumption that he will be misjudged, ridiculed or make a fool of himself. As a result the person starts to cut himself off from many areas for which he may have a talent and in which he could prove successful. Social phobia generally sets in during adolescence or early adulthood.

– Agoraphobia (fear of open spaces): Agoraphobia can be defined as a condition in which the sufferer tries to avoid environments which he perceives as being difficult to escape from, and when placed in these environments he experiences high levels of fear. In Agoraphobia there is a marked avoidance of closed spaces like busses or mini-busses, shopping malls or cinemas. Agoraphobia almost always manifests with panic attacks. The person who has panic attacks will have a tendency to keep away from any kind of space in which he thinks he may lose control or not get help in case of a panic attack. An Agoraphobia sufferer may for instance be unwilling to step outside the house without someone accompanying him, or he will avoid neighbourhoods from where it would be difficult to reach a doctor or hospital.

How frequent are phobias?

Approximately 8-18% of the population suffers from some kind of phobia. Phobias are more frequent in women. Simple phobias often develop in childhood. Complex phobias on the other hand develop during adolescence and in the period thereafter.

What symptoms are observed in phobia?

An uncontrollable anxiety when meeting the object of fear. To the sufferer the object of fear represents a situation that has to be absolutely avoided. In some patients merely thinking of the object of fear produces high levels of distress. In an encounter with the object of fear the sufferer experiences signs of a panic attack, for example sweating, difficulty in breathing, palpitations, shivering, feeling hot, a feeling of suffocation, chest pains, nausea, numbness in hands and feet, dryness of mouth, dizziness and headaches.

What are the reasons for a phobia?

In simple phobias that start in childhood, the reason can be an unexpected distressing experience. Sometimes a phobia can be a learned behaviour, the child may witness the phobia of a person in the same household and develop the same phobia. However, the fear of blood and of medical procedures has a hereditary aspect to it.

In complex phobias seen in early adolescence, the role of hereditary factors and the effect of past experiences is more marked. The onset of Agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces, is always connected to panic attacks. In sufferers of phobia, certain chemical changes take place in the area of the brain related to fear.

How is a phobia diagnosed?

Sufferers of a phobia are often aware of their phobia. As simple phobias do not lead to serious problems in the individual’s life, these sufferers do not often complain about their phobias and generally do not consult a doctor.

Is it possible that you might be suffering from a phobia?

If you suffer serious distress in at least one of the situations listed below, it is likely that you have some kind of phobia:

• Leaving the house

• Waiting in a queue

• Travelling on the Metro, crossing over bridges or through underpasses

• Being alone at home

• Being in crowded spaces

• Being in closed spaces like a cinema, minibus, lift etc.

• Encountering a specific object