A phobia is an excessive and irrational fear reaction. If you have a phobia, you may experience a deep sense of dread or panic when you encounter the source of your fear.
A phobia can develop during childhood, adolescence or early adulthood.
They’re often linked to a frightening event or stressful situation. However, it’s not always clear why some phobias occur.
Specific or Simple Phobias
Specific or simple phobias, such as a fear of heights (acrophobia), usually develop during childhood.
Simple phobias can often be linked to an early negative childhood experience. For example, if you’re trapped in a confined space when you’re young, you may develop a fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia) when you’re older.
It’s also thought that phobias can sometimes be “learnt” from an early age. For example, if someone in your family has a fear of spiders (arachnophobia), you may also develop the same fear yourself.
Other factors in the family environment, such as having parents who are particularly anxious, may also affect the way you deal with anxiety later in life.
It’s not known what causes complex phobias, such as agoraphobia and social phobia. However, it’s thought that genetics, brain chemistry and life experiences may all play a part in these type of phobias.
The physical reactions (symptoms) a person experiences when faced with the object of their fear are real and aren’t simply “in their head”.
The body reacts to the threat by releasing the hormone adrenalin, which causes symptoms such as:
- shortness of breath
- a rapid heartbeat (tachycardia)
No matter what specific phobia you have, it’s likely to produce these types of reactions:
- An immediate feeling of intense fear, anxiety and panic when exposed to or even thinking about the source of your fear
- Awareness that your fears
These factors may increase your risk of phobias:
- Your age.
- Social phobia typically develops early in life, usually by age 13.
- Specific phobias first appear in childhood, usually by age 10.
- Agoraphobia occurs most frequently in the late teens and.
Many people with a phobia don’t need treatment, and avoiding the object of their fear is enough to control the problem.
However, it may not always be possible to avoid certain phobias, such as a fear of flying. In this instance, you may decide to get professional help and advice to find out about treatment options.
Most phobias are curable, but no single treatment is guaranteed to work for all phobias. In some cases, a combination of different treatments may be recommended. The main treatment types are:
- self-help techniques
- talking treatments
Talking treatment is very conducive to help with phobias
Talking treatments, such as counselling, are often very effective at treating phobias. In particular, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness have been found to be very effective for treating phobias.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
CBT is a type of counselling that can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave. It can be used to develop practical ways of dealing with your phobia.
One part of the CBT treatment process that’s often used to treat simple phobias involves gradual exposure to your fear, so you feel less anxious about it. This is known as desensitisation or exposure therapy.
For example, if you have a fear of snakes (ophidiophobia), your therapist may start by asking you to read about snakes. They may later show you a picture of a snake. They may then arrange for you to visit the reptile house of your local zoo to look at some real snakes. The final step would be for you to hold a snake.
Exposure therapy works by gradually increasing the level of exposure to your fear, which allows you to gain control over your phobia. As the treatment progresses, you should begin to feel less anxious about your phobia.