A phobia can interfere with a person’s ability to socialize or perform everyday work. It belongs to a large group of mental problem known an “anxiety disorder”. However, you can overcome phobias with the right treatment and self-help strategies.
WHAT IS A PHOBIA?
Millions of people all over the world suffer from some sort of phobia. The American Psychiatric Association defines a phobia as an irrational and excessive fear of an object or situation. In most cases, the phobia is associated with danger or a fear of harm. Most phobias develop in childhood, but they can also develop in adults.
SYMPTOMS OF PHOBIAS
Phobic symptoms are triggered when the subject is exposed to the fear object or situation. In severe cases, even thinking about the feared object can lead to a response. The common symptoms of phobias include:
* Shortness of breath or difficulty in breathing
* Palpitations or increased heart rate
* Chest pain or discomfort
* Trembling or shaking
* Feeling of choking
* Feeling faint or dizzy
* Feelings of unreality or of being detached from oneself
* Fear of losing control
* Fear of dying
* Numbness or tingling sensations
* Hot or cold flashes
COMMON TYPES OF PHOBIAS AND FEARS
Common phobias can be divided into four groups, though this grouping is not exhaustive:
* Animal phobias: Animal phobias are fears caused by an animal or insect. Examples include fear of cats, dogs, rodents, cockroaches and snakes.
* Environmental phobias: Examples of such phobias are fear of heights, fear of storms, fear of water, and fear of the dark.
* Situational phobias. Situational phobias are fears triggered by a specific situation. Examples include fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia), fear of elevators, fear of flying, fear of dentists, fear of driving, fear of tunnels, and fear of bridges.
* Blood-related phobia. Suffers of this phobias fear injury, or injection or a medical procedure.
There are also phobias that don’t fit neatly into any of the above four categories. Examples are agoraphobia which is fear of public places and open spaces, and fear of clowns!
Phobias in children are also common. Among the common phobias suffered by children are: (a) loud noises, strangers, separation from parents (0-2 years old); (b) imaginary beings such as ghosts, monsters; the dark, sleeping alone, strange noises (3-6 years old), and (d) injury, illness, school performance, death, natural disasters.
(7-16 years old).
TREATMENTS FOR PHOBIAS
You should seek professional help if your phobia (a) causes intense fear and panic, (b) causes you to avoid certain situations and places, (c) interferes with your daily routine, or (d) lasts more than six months.
Several approaches are used to treat phobias. They are counselling, counter-conditioning, exposure treatments and hypnotherapy. Sometimes, medications are included as part of the treatment to reduce anxiety. The effectiveness of a treatment depends on the patient and the type of phobia.
Counselling involves talking to a mental health therapist. Such therapists are trained to listen sympathetically and can retrain the patients’ way of thinking, and how to cope with their negative thoughts and feelings.
Another frequently used method is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy called systematic desensitization or exposure therapy. In simple terms, the person is gradually exposed to the object of his fear, and in the process he becomes immune to that fear. The exposure takes place through several steps. As an example, a person who has a phobia of cats might be asked to draw a cat. This could be followed by reading about cats, looking at pictures of them, and finally, being placed in the same room with one. This method allows patients to control their mental and emotional state rather than becoming helpless and afraid when faced with their phobia. Thus, they realize that they are in no real danger.
Another method often used in phobia treatment is counter-conditioning. In this method, the patient is taught how to respond to the fear object in a new way. Rather than panic in the face of the feared object or situation, the patient learns relaxation techniques to replace anxiety and fear. This new behavior is incompatible with the previous panicked response, so the phobic response gradually fades. Counter-conditioning is often used with patients who are unable to handle exposure treatments.
Hypnosis can also set the sufferer free of their phobias. In mild cases, where a person recognizes the triggers but would like help controlling their reaction, post-hypnotic suggestions can help them control their breathing, slow their heart rate, and achieve a relaxed state of mind.
For self-help methods, learning relaxation techniques is recommended. By using techniques such as deep breathing and meditation, a person can control his reaction when he encounters his phobia.
Understanding the cause of the phobia that you suffer from is also a key. It helps to know that you are not alone, that phobias are common, and that your anxiety and fears can be overcome.