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What Is A Phobia?

Basic Information About Fears and Phobias

Intrinsic Fear
Before we explore phobias, it may be helpful to look at them in light of the larger category of fear.  Not everyone has a phobia, but every human has fear built into our nature for survival.  It is said that as infants, we are only born with two instinctual fears: the fear of loud noises, and the fear of falling.  Other fears develop naturally such as “stranger anxiety,” and “separation anxiety.”

Almost anyone who has spent time with two, three or four year olds knows that a child's imagination can create monsters at night from common noises or objects around the house. These fears are developmental fears, which usually fade away as we continue to grow and learn and experience the world around us.

Fear in Adults
However, even so, we still have fears as adults. Our sympathetic nervous system responds to a perceived threat by releasing hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, and increasing our heart rate, respiration, and perspiration. This is known as the “
fight, flee, or freeze” response. Our perception is heightened and other body systems such as digestion can be temporarily put on hold. 

Many people will tell you that they fear common things such as spiders or snakes, mean dogs, being in very high places, or going to the dentist.  However, these fears do not normally interfere with our ability to go about or enjoy our daily lives. When a fear becomes strong and persistent enough, it can be called a phobia.

I found a quote attributed to an un-named psychologist who said “If I told you to imagine there was a snake on this floor and you started to panic thinking of it, that’s phobic. If you looked down and saw a rattlesnake and said ‘Let’s get the hell out of here,’ that’s common sense.”

Phobia Definition
Webster's defines phobia as an “exaggerated usually inexplicable and illogical fear of a particular object or class of objects.”  "The World of Psychology," by Ellen Wood and Samuel Wood defines phobia as a “persistent, irrational fear of an object, situation, or activity that the person feels compelled to avoid.”

The word phobia comes from the Greek root phobos, meaning fear.  Also, according to Webster's, the word phobia was first used in 1786. I wonder what phobia that first person suffered from?

Phobia Diagnosis
How do you tell if your fear is a full-blown phobia? If your phobia or fear is bad or intense enough that you are thinking about seeing a mental health care professional for a diagnosis, chances are good that you do have a phobia. In most cases the phobia must be disruptive to everyday functioning before one can receive an official diagnosis.

The phobia must cause significant problems with a person's normal routine, either at work or school, social life or relationships, or on a personal level create increased stress about having a phobia. You do not need to be diagnosed with a phobia in order to seek treatment. If you think you might have a phobia, you can take the Phobia Quiz to find out.

Phobia Etiology
Etiology is a fancy word for "cause."  Many phobias come about with no apparent or obvious cause.  Sometimes people may experience upsetting emotions and then be exposed to the situation or object, which then creates an unconscious association of fear.  Phobias can show up, seemingly randomly, during childhood or adulthood. A phobia may also arises as a symptom of experiencing a traumatic event.

Other variables that may contribute to either predisposition for or prolonging of a phobia include: genetics, your upbringing, your current level of physical, mental and emotional fitness and health, and your diet.

Some people also use the theory that phobias are caused by a blockage in the body's energy system. This theory, and the treatment used along with it, is referred to as Energy Psychology.

Classifying Phobias
Phobias are recognized as psychiatric disorders. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition (
DSM-IV), published by the American Psychiatric Association, is used by mental health professionals to reference causes, statistics (such as age, gender, age at onset), prognosis, and optimal (traditional) treatment approaches.

Phobias do not have their own grouping in the DSM-IV. They are listed under the category of Anxiety Disorders, which are typically characterized by extreme or inappropriate anxiety or fear.

Furthermore, there are three classes of phobia disorders: agoraphobia, social phobia, and specific phobia.

Agoraphobia is an intense fear of being in a situation where immediate escape is not possible or where help is not possible, if the person should become overwhelmed by anxiety.  Symptoms of agoraphobia usually begin in young adults and may begin with repeated panic attacks. People who suffer from agoraphobia may spend a tremendous amount of time and energy avoiding situations such as busy streets, crowded stores, restaurants, or public transportation. If other family members have agoraphobia, a person seems to be at greater risk of developing the disorder. 

In many cases, people who suffer from agoraphobia are confined to their home or can only venture outside of their home a set distance before being overcome with anxiety or panic attacks.  Sometimes, if they bring along a trusted friend or relative, they may be able to manage the anxiety enough to leave their home or take a short trip. Agoraphobia is the most common phobia for which adults will seek professional treatment.

Social Phobia
People who suffer from Social Phobia have an irrational fear of situations in which they might embarrass or humiliate themselves in front of other others by acting clumsy, foolish, or incompetent. The fear itself can actually contribute to awkward behavior, thus reinforcing the problem. People with social phobia may fear eating, talking, writing, or doing anything in front of other people, no matter how simple or common the task.

Social phobia, although less debilitating than agoraphobia, can still seriously affect a person's performance at work or school.

Specific Phobia
Specific (or simple) phobias is a category for any phobia, other than agoraphobia and social phobia.  This type of phobia, usually, but not always, has its onset, in childhood or adolescence. Specific phobias, are generally divided into five types:

1. Phobias of animals, objects, or people (such as snakes, spiders, bathtubs, firearms, or clowns, etc.),

2. Phobias of the natural environment (thunder, lightning, water, etc.),

3 . Phobias of blood/ injury / injection (seeing blood, getting a shot, going to the dentist, or having a medical procedure),

4. Phobias that are situational (high places, driving, flying, getting married, etc.), and

5. Other phobias that don't fit into any of the other four categories (fear of swallowing, being touched, blushing, vomiting, etc.).

People with specific phobias, generally fear the same things that many people commonly fear, but the fear is terribly exaggerated. People with phobias can invest a lot of time, energy and effort avoiding the object or situation that causes fear.

Phobia Symptoms
There are a variety of physical, mental, and emotional symptoms of phobias. Not all symptoms need to be present to have a phobia. Every person can experience different symptoms and to different degrees. Some physical symptoms include higher levels of stress, sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat, tightness in your chest or stomach, rapid breathing, hyperawareness, panic attacks, or fainting. Mental symptoms can include irrational behavior, denial, avoidance, judgments about your self or your ability, or low self-esteem. Emotional symptoms can include feelings of fear, anger, loss, anxiety, or frustration.

Phobia Treatment Options
For more details on the treatment options available, please read this article.