What Is a Phobia? Types, Symptoms and Treatments

Child with a dentist phobia
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According to the American Psychiatric Association, a phobia is an irrational and excessive fear of an object or situation. In most cases, the phobia involves a sense of endangerment or a fear of harm. For example, those suffering from agoraphobia fear being trapped in an inescapable place or situation.

Symptoms of Phobias

Phobic symptoms can occur through exposure to the fear object or situation, or sometimes merely thinking about the feared object can lead to a response.

Typical symptoms associated with phobias include:

  • Dizziness, trembling and increased heart rate
  • Breathlessness
  • Nausea
  • A sense of unreality
  • Fear of dying
  • Preoccupation with the fear object

In some cases, these symptoms can escalate into a full-scale anxiety attack. As a consequence of these symptoms, some individuals begin to isolate themselves, leading to severe difficulties in daily life. In some cases, the person may seek out medical care due to a constant concern with imagined illnesses or imminent death.

Types of Phobias

The American Psychiatric Association categorizes phobias into three different types:

  1. Social phobias involve a fear of social situations. Such phobias include an extreme and pervasive fear of social situations. In some cases, this fear may center on a very particular type of social situation such as public speaking. In other instances, people may fear to perform any task in front of other people for fear that they will be somehow publicly embarrassed.
  1. Agoraphobia involves a fear of being trapped in an inescapable place or situation. As a result, the phobic individual may begin to avoid such situations. In some cases, this fear can become so pervasive and overwhelming that the individual even fears to leave their home.
  2. Specific phobias involve the fear of a particular object (such as snakes). Such phobias typically fall into one of four different categories: situational, animals, medical, or environmental. A few examples of common fear objects include spiders, dogs, needles, natural disasters, heights, and flying.

    Examples of the four major types of specific phobias:

    1. The natural environment: Fear of lightening, water, storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, mudslides, etc.
    2. Animal: Fear of snakes, rodents, spiders, dogs, birds, etc.
    3. Medical: Fear of seeing blood, receiving injections, visiting a doctor, etc.
    4. Situational: Fear of bridges, leaving the home, driving, etc.

    How Prevalent Are Phobias?

    Phobias are quite common, affecting more than 10% of the U.S. population. Phobias are the most common mental disorder in the United States, but far more women than men are affected by phobias. In many cases, people can recognize that their fear is irrational and take steps to overcome their phobia. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, only about 10 percent of reported cases become life-long phobias.

    Treatments for Phobias

    There are a number of treatment approaches for phobias. The effectiveness of treatment depends on the individual and the type of phobia.

    These are just a few potential phobia treatments:

    In exposure treatments, the patient is exposed to the fear object in order to help them overcome their fear.

    One type of exposure treatment is flooding, in which the patient is confronted by the fear object for an extended length of time without the opportunity to escape. The goal of this method is to help the individual face their fear and realize that the fear object will not harm them.

    Another method often used in phobia treatment is counter-conditioning. In this method, the patient is taught a new response to the fear object. Rather that panic in the face of the feared object or situation, the client learns relaxation techniques to replace anxiety and fear. This new behavior is incompatible with the previous panic response, so the phobic response gradually diminishes. Counter-conditioning is often used with patients who are unable to handle exposure treatments.

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