Are you afraid of heights? Maybe small spaces? Or spiders? Perhaps, you are afraid of snakes or maybe even open water… When you come up against these types of things, it’s normal to feel frightened, anxious, jumpy, shaky, sweaty or even a little sick. You might even go as far as to refer to these fears as a “phobia”. Generally, though, they aren’t true phobias. The level of fear we experience towards such things (spiders, heights etc) is appropriate given the situation at the time. Most of the time, we are even able to push through this fear if we have to, whereas someone with a specific phobia can’t.
So what exactly is a specific phobia?
A specific phobia is an irrational and exaggerated fear towards an object, activity or situation (let’s call this the stimulus). This fear causes a severe level of anxiety which is experienced through physical symptoms such as tightness in the chest, increased heart rate, nausea, and breathlessness. This may even escalate to panic attacks. “An adult with phobia does indeed recognize the fear response is exaggerated,” says Richard McNally, PhD,.
Generally, if you have a specific phobia, you are aware that your fear is far beyond what it should be. The problem is that it feels like it happens automatically every time you come across the stimulus. It also feels like you can’t control this fear reaction. As a result, you will likely try to avoid the stimulus. Because the level of fear is excessive, the avoidance is also always evident. For example, if your phobia is of spiders, you wouldn’t just avoid spiders themselves. You might also avoid pictures of spiders, videos of spiders, the zoo because of the spider exhibit, cleaning under the sink because there might be spiders….oh and forget about the shoes you left outside last night — they can go in the bin now as they’re probably covered in spiders…. the list goes on.
If this is something that has been happening for 6 months or more, and it is beginning to really impact someone’s life it may be considered a specific phobia.
What causes a specific phobia?
As with any mental health concern, it is difficult to pin point exactly what causes a specific phobia. Most commonly, they seem to be related to one or both of two things;
- A traumatic or upsetting interaction with the feared object or situation. For example, being bitten by a dog and then developing a phobia of dogs.
- Or being taught by others to fear a particular thing — a child developing a specific phobia of elevators because their mother also fears elevators.
Other things that have been shown to increase the likelihood of developing a specific phobia are pre-existing anxiety disorders, a family history of mental health concerns or an anxious temperament.
How do I overcome a specific phobia?
Similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, in specific phobias, the brain has “learnt” to be afraid of this stimulus due to associating it with an unpleasant feeling (anxiety). The anxiety experienced each time they come across this stimulus strengthens this connection and reinforces this belief. Even worse, by avoiding the stimulus, it stops any chance of breaking this association. Therefore, the best way to conquer a specific phobia is to prove to the brain that it does not need to be afraid of the stimulus. This can be done by having some experiences with the stimulus without anxiety being present.
“Phobias are the most common mental disorder,” says R. Reid Wilson, PhD, spokesman for the American Psychological Association. This is always best done with a professional through counseling. They will work with you to gradually “expose” you to the feared object and situation while managing your anxiety symptoms. This can involve reducing anxiety symptoms through relaxation and breathing strategies or simply just by remaining around the feared object or situation for a period of time. Naturally, anxiety cannot stay at peak for long periods of time and will eventually decrease (even without doing anything). “The wonderful thing about phobias is that patients really respond very well to treatment,” says Patricia Marino, a psychologist. There are lots of psychological assistance that can help you with this. There are even some medical treatments if required. Contact your GP to find out how to access a psychologist or a psychiatrist. They can help you with this.