Why You Needn't Be Afraid of a Phobia
Most of us have an irrational fear or two
Some people feel anxious at the thought of a needle. Others feel lightheaded by simply imagining a great height. And still others shriek at the very sight of a spider.
There is nothing wrong with being afraid. Fear is a perfectly natural, and even helpful, human emotion. Fear activates our "fight-or-flight" response and helps us keep our minds and bodies alert so we can respond quickly to threatening or dangerous situations.
While irrational fears, such as being afraid of needles or speaking in public, don't necessarily serve our best interests, these fears are usually pretty minor.
Unfortunately, some people's irrational fears are strong enough to cause severe anxiety and interfere with their daily lives. Fears that are both irrational and disabling are known as phobias.
If you believe you're struggling with a phobia, you're likely well aware that your fear is unreasonable, yet you still can't seem to control your feelings. Simply thinking about the thing that makes you afraid may cause you anxiety, and when you're exposed to it the panic may feel unbearable.
Fortunately, if you do have a phobia, there's no reason to live in fear. Phobias and other fears can almost always be quickly overcome with the right treatments and help is readily available for those who seek it.
Types of Phobias
Mental health professionals consider phobias to be a type of anxiety disorder and place them into one of three categories:
- Agoraphobia — Agoraphobia is a fear of leaving home or a small, familiar "safe" area. Agoraphobia is commonly caused by more specific phobias (such as a fear of open spaces, social situations, or contamination and disease) or post-traumatic stress disorder brought about by a trauma that occurred outdoors.
- Social phobias — Social phobias involve fears of other people or social situations. Social phobias can be very specific in nature (such as being afraid of public speaking, eating in public, dating, or large crowds) or a more generalized phobia known as social anxiety disorder that tends to involve fears of a variety of social situations. Social phobias can be some of the more difficult to overcome without the help of a professional counselor or therapist.
- Specific phobias — Specific phobias involve fears of a singular nature that cause a panic response (such as a fear of heights, small spaces, flying, water, dogs, snakes, spiders, disease, needles, clowns, etc.). While many people experience these types of fears, individuals with specific phobias go out of their way to avoid the things they fear.
How Can You Tell if Your Fear Is a Phobia?
As mentioned, a phobia can be described as an intense, uncontrollable fear of something that poses little, if any, actual danger. For example, it is only natural to be afraid of a snarling, unfettered pit bull, but it is irrational to be scared stiff at the sight of a friendly beagle on a leash, as you might be if you have cynophobia (a fear of dogs).
Regardless of the underlying cause of your fear, if you're suffering from a phobia not only is your fear irrational but also so overwhelming you'll go to great lengths to avoid it — inconveniencing yourself and even changing your habits and lifestyle in the process. You may turn down an incredible job offer if you're afraid of flying and the position requires lots of travel, you may refuse to see a doctor and seek medical treatment if you're afraid of needles, or you may drive an extra half-hour or more each day to avoid crossing a bridge if you're afraid of heights.
Phobias vary in severity from one person to the next. Some people never suffer more than relatively mild anxiety simply by avoiding the thing they fear, while others suffer full-fledged panic attacks just thinking about their fears. Most men and women struggling with a phobia understand that their fears are irrational, but they are powerless to prevent their panic reactions. This is especially true if the thing that is feared is particularly close or seems inescapable.
When Should One Seek Help?
Phobias are relatively common phenomena. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, over 15% of U.S. adults suffer from some form of phobia.
Fortunately, phobias rarely lead to disruption of day-to-day activities or significant suffering. But this is little solace for those who are suffering from persistent social phobia, agoraphobia, or any specific phobia that poses a daily problem.
If your phobia isn't noticeably affecting your life, it's probably nothing to worry about. On the other hand, if your avoidance of an activity, situation, or object interferes with your day-to-day responsibilities, your relationships, or your enjoyment of life, it's time to seek help.
Getting the Treatment You Need
Given the varieties of phobias and their prevalence, there is no shortage of treatment options available for people suffering with a phobia.
That having been said, most phobia treatments involve some form of professional counseling or psychotherapy.
While the type and length of treatment necessary will depend largely on the type of phobia you're struggling with and its severity, most treatments are relatively brief and quite effective.
The following are some of the more common phobia treatments available:
- Exposure Therapy — Also known as systematic desensitization, exposure therapy works by gradually introducing a person with a phobia to the object or situation they fear, first in the imagination and then in reality. Repeated exposures can help you feel an increasing sense of control over your phobia and the phobia begins to lose its power as you realize that the object or situation, while possibly unpleasant, isn't actually threatening or harmful.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) — Cognitive behavioral therapy helps people with phobias challenge the dysfunctional thoughts and beliefs that underlie their fears. CBT is often used in conjunction with exposure therapy and the two together have been proven to be quite effective at helping people overcome their fears.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) — Primarily used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), EMDR treatment has been demonstrated to be effective at helping people overcome fears following a specific trauma, such as a fear of driving after a traffic accident or a fear of dogs after being bitten by one.
- Hypnotherapy — While there is still a lack of scientific evidence to support hypnotherapy's efficacy, many individuals swear by hypnotherapy's ability to remove the associations that trigger phobic reactions.
It is important to note that none of these treatment options is mutually exclusive. Therapists often recommend multiple treatments when treating patients with phobias.
In addition to professional counseling and therapy, you can help lessen the impact of your fears and exercise more control by learning as much about your phobia as possible, challenging your negative thoughts and assumptions, and practicing relaxation techniques that can help keep you calm.
Just remember, if you're suffering from a phobia you're not alone. There are countless professionals and numerous treatments that can help you cope with and overcome your fears, often in a just a handful of treatment sessions. Having a phobia is truly nothing to fear, as long as you're willing to get the help you need to take control of your life and live it on your own terms.
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For more information contact:
Haleh Rambod, M.A., MFT
2111 Geer Road, Suite 505-507
Turlock, CA 95382
4100 Moorpark Avenue, Suite 106
San Jose CA, 95117