Phobias: a dark hub for your deepest fears

Fear is a normal part of life, and it serves a definite function. Were it not for fear, people would be more likely to lead dangerous and harmful lifestyles. Have you heard that old saying?

“A man without fears is a fool. A man who controls his fears is a hero”.

All the while, there are many people for whom fear is a very close and very unwanted companion. There are people whose fears are so intense and uncontrollable that it will hinder them from enjoying life and functioning normally. In this case, the diagnosis “Specific Phobia” may apply. The three main features of this anxiety disorder are

  1. Experiencing fear when faced with a certain stimulus or even when anticipating the possibility that stimulus may occur.
  2. This fear is apparently uncontrollable and usually escalates into a panic attacks if the person is for some reason forced to confront its source.
  3. The direct focus of the fear is the stimulus that triggers it rather than on external perceptions or internal reactions to the fearing.

In simple terms, if you have a specific phobia, your fear probably hinges on its objects. You won’t be concerned about going crazy or judged by others, as with other anxiety disorders. When you have a specific phobia, your outbound terror will be directly sourced by a specific stimulus and nothing else.

What kinds of Specific Phobias have been documented?

There are hundreds of documented manifestations of specific phobia (1), which can essentially be grouped in five main types:

phobias

  • Animal Type Specific Phobias: fear of dogs, cats, snakes, rats, dogs, cats, or other animals.
  • Natural Environment Type: fear of heights, firestorms, water, aging, or other natural phenomena.
  • Blood-Injection-Injury Type: fear of contamination, seeing blood, needles and similar phenomena.
  • Situational Type: fear of closed spaces, of the dark, of going to the dentist or other situations.
  • Other Type: fear of the number thirteen, fear of clowns or mimes, fear of loud noises and other phenomena.

How commonly do people experience Specific Phobias?

While more than half of the adult population reportedly experiences occasional intense fears, this doesn’t always imply the existence of a Specific Phobia. According to the researcher Chapman (2), 11.25% of the population will manifest this disorder at some point in their lives. Women are more than twice as likely to suffer from a specific phobia, and most phobias seem to develop during childhood.

Also, research has demonstrated that this disorder tends to run in the family; in fact, genetic factors are suspected to be among the prime biological causes for this type of anxiety disorder. If someone in your family has had a specific phobia, then you have increased likelihood of developing a phobia of the same type (not necessarily the same exact phobia).

Due to the high specificity involved in Specific Phobia, it’s not uncommon for an incomplete diagnosis to occur, in which the person suffering from this condition will sometimes be diagnosed with Social Phobia, Agoraphobia or other types of Anxiety Disorder. Within the prestigious manual of Treatment Plans and Interventions, Leahy presents the following flow-chart which can be used by clinicians to ascertain whether the diagnostic of Specific Phobia might apply:

Phobia

What is the most successful treatment for specific phobias?

Much like with other types of anxiety disorder, the most effective approach for treating Specific Phobias involves CBT (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy), with as many as 94% of the patients experiencing significant recovery within a few sessions of therapy. The approach that works best for treating a specific phobia involves direct exposure that prompts desensitization.

When people seek help for dealing with a specific phobia, the usual course of treatment involves the assessment of the experienced fears and their respective hierarchy, followed by a progressive exposure in a controlled environment.  For example, let’s imagine your specific phobia is focused on spiders. The course of treatment might unfold along these lines:

  1. Talking about spiders, learning more about them
  2. Looking at pictures of spiders while rationalizing your fear
  3. Being in the presence of spiders, without touching them
  4. Ultimately you should be able to actually touch a spider

This kind of routine may seem utterly scary and impossible to handle (especially if you really have arachnophobia), but remember that you will never be pushed hastily to the next stage of treatment.

In the early therapy sessions, you will probably not even have to talk about spiders until you feel comfortable doing so. In all circumstance, you are always reminded that only after you’ve actually mustered the courage to stand up to your fears that will you finally have a chance of conquering them. In broad terms, there is no other way to overcome a specific Phobia, other than being taught how to deal with the source of your deepest fears.

Dealing with specific phobia will make you feel accomplished

Once you manage to overcome a specific phobia, you will experience a sense of accomplishment and inner strength that will overflow to other areas of your life, making you feel more in control and better capable of managing any troubles you may happen to experience. You will know more about yourself and feel more adjusted than ever before.

References:

(1)   Complete List of known phobias: http://www.phobialist.com/reverse.html

(2)   Chapman, T. F. (1997). The epidemiology of fears and phobias. In G. C. L. Davey (Ed.), Phobias: A handbook of theory, research and treatment (pp. 415-434). New York: Wiley.

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