What Is a Physiological Response?

When Your Phobia Triggers a Severe Physiological Response

panicked woman grabbing head while looking over railing
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A physiological response is a reaction that triggers a bodily or physical response to a stimulus. Most of us are familiar with the automatic and instinctive physiological responses we experience every day, but we typically go unaware of them.  

But many of us are also prone to more severe physiological responses to stimuli like stress that tap into what is colloquially known as the "fight or flight" response.

When placed in a stressful situation, you might begin to sweat. Your heart rate might increase. These are types of physiological responses. 

Physiological Responses to Phobias

For people with phobias, coming into contact with the object of their phobia can serve as the stress trigger for different types of physiological responses. A physiological response to intense and irrational fear caused by a phobia can manifest itself in physical ways like:

  • Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Heart palpitations
  • Panic attacks
  • Dizziness

The physiological response may be mild or severe, but is not generally dangerous. However, these physical symptoms can mirror those of some diseases, so it is important to consult with a physician.

While the physiological responses experienced by a person with a phobia is often a unique reaction to a specific fear, it's important to know if this response is, in fact, caused by a true phobia.

What Is a Phobia?

A phobia can be defined as an intense and irrational fear. It's important to note that a fear and a phobia are not the same, so it's important to know the difference. Your therapist cannot use a lab test to make a diagnosis so she, and other mental health professionals consult the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th Ed., 2013).

Diagnosing a Phobia

In order for a phobia to be diagnosed, it must significantly interfere with the sufferer's daily life. For example, a strong fear of snakes may not be a phobia in a city-dweller who has no reason to come in contact with a snake. However, it may represent a severe phobia in a country farmer whose property is home to numerous snakes.

There are many anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder that may cause phobic reactions to certain situations. A mental health professional will make a clear evaluation of a sufferer's experiences to arrive at a correct diagnosis.

Treatment for Phobias

Therapy will help with physiological responses caused by phobias. The two commonly accepted forms of treatment for phobias are medication and therapy. Many clinicians prefer to try therapy first, adding medications only if needed, although this is not a universal practice.

One of the most accepted forms of therapy for phobias is known as cognitive behavior therapy, or CBT.

In this form of therapy, the clinician works with the client to confront the feared situation and change the phobic reaction by changing the automatic thoughts that occur. Exposure therapy is a leading form of cognitive behavior therapy that works well in treating phobias. A popular type of exposure therapy is known as systematic desensitization, in which the client is gradually exposed to the feared object, learning to tolerate increased exposure bit by bit.

In addition, prescription medications can help with physiological responses caused by phobias. These include:

  • Anti-depressants
  • Anti-anxiety medications
  • Beta-blockers, which limit the effects of adrenaline on the body

Many people find relief through alternative treatments and relaxation techniques. However, these methods should only be attempted under professional supervision. Many phobias continue to worsen over time, so prompt treatment is always recommended.

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