A specific phobia is an intense fear of a certain situation, object or animal. The fear is so strong that someone avoids the dreaded situation. Well-known phobias are fear of heights and fear of flying. Other common phobias are spider phobia, thunderstorm phobia, phobia for injections, blood phobia and dental phobia. With a disease phobia (the fear of getting a serious illness) it is important to check whether the fear is indeed aimed at getting an illness. If the fear is not only aimed at getting a disease, but one actually feels that they already have the disease, it is called hypochondria.
Phobia is an intense fear of a certain situation
Someone with a phobia is aware that the fear is out of proportion to the real danger. For example, people with a spider phobia may find a spider terrifying, but they understand that a spider is actually harmless. A phobia only arises when daily life is disrupted to a greater or lesser degree by this. So a phobia has more to it than finding something a little ‘scary’. Phobias are common. It is estimated that about one in ten people suffers from a phobia at least once in their life. So, let’s see what are the symptoms of Phobia is an intense fear of a certain situation.
Anxiety and avoidance behavior are characteristics that always occur with a phobia. Confrontation with the dreaded object, animal or situation evokes an intense fear. Not only does the confrontation evoke fear, but the representation of the dreaded object is also often enough to provoke a fear response.
People differ in the way they express their fear. Sometimes, like in people with a blood phobia, there is no fear, but rather a disgust. Other people do not so much experience the feeling of fear, but much more the physical reactions that accompany fear, such as trembling, sweating and palpitations. These reactions arise from the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Activation of the sympathetic nervous system causes the body to prepare for action. The body prepares itself to escape from the dreaded object, for example, a car or a spider. In some phobias (the blood phobia and injection phobia), the sympathetic response (palpitations, rapid breathing, etc.) can be directly followed by an opposite response. A drop in blood pressure occurs and the person may pass out. As said, in addition to fear, avoidance behavior almost always occurs. People avoid what they find scary: they avoid the source of their fear.
How does phobia develop?
Specific phobias usually develop at a young age. The dental phobia usually develops around the age of twelve and the blood phobia around nine years. Fears about specific objects or animals occur mainly in children and they usually disappear spontaneously. In some children, these ‘normal’ fears do not disappear by themselves. Several factors are assumed to be responsible for this. An important factor is how parents deal with their child’s fear. If parents are also frightened by the feared object, children will imitate this behavior, or ‘imitate’ it. Also, negative information and negative experiences (such as being bitten by a dog) can cause the fear to turn into a phobia.
Phobias can also develop in adulthood. Usually, a phobia arises from a traumatic experience. Someone who has a negative experience with something continues to have a specific fear for it. For example, someone has experienced a serious car accident and remains afraid to drive independently. Then this person will no longer drive to avoid his fear.
Avoidance behavior plays a critical role in maintaining a phobia. By avoiding the feared object, short-term “profit” is created, namely a reduction in fear. However, in time, fear will increase. After all, people who start avoiding fearful situations no longer realize that there is no real danger. Thus, fear is maintained or even exacerbated. An additional phenomenon is that of selective attention. People unconsciously select the information that confirms the danger and ignore the ‘safe’ information. For example, in fear of flying, someone immediately knows to name one plane that crashed and ignores all other planes that just land safely.
Is it serious and what can you expect?
Whether a phobia is serious depends on the degree to which the phobia disrupts daily life. Many people have a specific phobia without much bother. However, there are also people with a phobia who suffer greatly from this. People often only seek help for a phobia when they really get a lot of it. For example, someone who has an elevator phobia can live fine as long as they don’t take the elevator. However, if this person goes to work on the 24th floor of a large office, he suddenly has a problem. Often there will then be a period of twisting around to avoid the avoidance behavior until this really no longer works. From that moment on, a pressure of suffering arises and one has a ‘problem’. As a rule, phobias don’t disappear by themselves;
When to the doctor?
The best criterion you can use when asking if you should seek help is the degree to which you experience the phobia yourself. If the phobia starts to disrupt your life, this is often a reason to seek help. It is also possible that someone in your area, for example, your partner, starts to experience your phobia and urges you to seek help. For example, your partner would like to take a flying holiday to a faraway place while you have a flying phobia. It is important that you really want to do something about the phobia yourself.
Your doctor will not be able to do much about your phobia, but he can refer you. Medication is hardly ever used in the treatment of phobia, only short-term medication is sometimes prescribed to deal with a certain phobia, such as fear of flying. When the drug is stopped, the phobia often returns in full force. Most psychologists and mental health institutions can treat a phobia. Some institutions also have specialized treatment units (outpatient clinics) for the treatment of anxiety disorders, including phobias.
What can you do about it yourself?
Scientific research shows that behavioral therapy, and more specifically the so-called ‘exposure treatment’, is most successful in treating a phobia. It also appears that most specific phobias can be significantly reduced in one three-hour session. Exposure literally means ‘exposure’. The principle is simple: with very small steps one seeks confrontation, one is exposed to the feared object and thus overcomes fear. Although the principle is very simple, the execution of exposure requires certain craftsmanship, because people often avoid subtly. Therefore, it is always advisable to seek help. You are likely to get rid of your phobia much faster than if you try it yourself. If you want to try to overcome your phobia yourself,
- Work in very small steps at a time. People often take too big steps, which suddenly makes them overwhelmed by fear and then they are back to square one.
- Make an anxiety thermometer, where 0 is a situation where you experience no fear at all, and 100 is the situation where your anxiety is at its maximum. Then make 10 and no less than 20 intermediate steps, with increasing fear. For example, 0 is a paper spider, 50 is taking a fake spider in your hand, and 100 is a real cross spider running over your hand.
- Then work through the fear thermometer step by step, starting at 0 and only go up one step if you no longer experience any fear at all in the step in question.
- Try to expose yourself to the situation in every step. Also, try not to “subtly” avoid it, such as looking away with your eyes.
- Point three is so important that it is mentioned again: do not step up until you have practiced the step in question often and no longer experience fear. Try not to “think” any further than the next step. If you keep thinking about 100, you may get discouraged.
General advice and precautions
Phobias that develop in adulthood can be prevented. As mentioned earlier, adult phobias often develop after a shocking or profound event. After such an event, you will tend to avoid the situation. It is advisable, no matter how difficult that may be, to step into the dreaded situation step by step as quickly as possible. You can ask the help of others for this. Because of this, you don’t give avoidance behavior a chance to turn your fear into a phobia. Also remember that a phobia is extremely annoying, but that it does not mean that there is something completely wrong with you. Actually, fear is a human protection mechanism that ensures that we do not harm ourselves. In a phobia, this protection mechanism has actually become ‘too good’.
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