Beating Phobias

Posted by Nikoletta Ventseslavova

Read if: you want to learn more about phobias and their treatment

From 30 yards away you see an animal approaching. You tell yourself to stay calm, because there’s nothing scary about this animal. However, panic seizes you in a death grip, you can hardly breathe and your knees turn to jelly, your heart starts break dancing. You would escape, if only you could make your legs move.

What is this terrifying animal turning your legs to rubber? Is it a hungry man-eating tiger? No, it’s just Mopsy – your neighbor’s lazy cat. It may sound ridiculous to those of us who don’t have galeophobia – the fear of cats – or any one of hundreds of other phobias that cause tremendous panic and fear attacks at the sight of everyday objects, situations or feelings.

In fact, every person has irrational fears. Some of us are afraid of flying, others get woozy when they look down from tall buildings. For most of us these fears are minor, but for some these fears are so severe that they cause tremendous anxiety and disrupt their lives. Psychologists call them phobias.

What exactly a is phobia?

A phobia represents an intense irrational fear of an object, situation, or activity that the person feels compelled to avoid. People with phobias become so overwhelmed by their anxiety that the simple pleasures of life are stripped away. Statistics show that 18% of the American population suffers from some kind of phobia. People can develop phobias of anything – planes, elevators, mushrooms, dogs, closed spaces, highway driving, needles, etc. Exposure to these trigger rapid heartbeat, sweating, dread panic or terror. The symptoms of phobia include uncontrollable, automatic reactions, which take over the person’s thoughts. The person realizes that the fear goes beyond normal borders, but he cannot control it, he takes extreme measures to flee the situation or avoid the feared object. There are more than 350 types of phobias, divided into three classes:

Specific or simple phobias –  irrational fear in the presence of some specific stimulus which commonly elicits avoidance of that stimulus. The subtypes are:

- animal types like: Arachnophobia – Fear of Spiders, or Ophidiophobia – Snakes, or Ichthyophobia – fear/dislike of fish, Monkeyphobia – fear of monkeys.

- natural environment type like: Heliophobia/Heliophobic – aversion to sunlight, or Aquaphobia – fear of water, Thermophobia – aversion to heat, Ombrophobia – avoidance of rain.

- situational type like:  Aviophobia – Flying, Nihilophobia – fear of nothingness, Venustraphobia – fear of beautiful women, Ablutophobia – fear of bathing, washing, or cleaning, Glossophobia – Public speaking

- blood-injection-injury type – cued by witnessing some invasive medical procedure like: Emetophobia – fear of people being sick, Dentophobia – Dentists, or Aichmophobia – Needles;

Social phobia: avoidance behavior in social situations, due to a fear of embarrassment or humiliation in social atmosphere

Agoraphobia: Irrational anxiety about being in places from which escape might be difficult or embarrassing, caused by fear of being away from a safe place

Distinguish phobias from other psychotic disorders:

Phobic disorders are a part of the group of anxiety (psychotic) disorders, which show similar symptoms. The differences between phobias and psychotic disorders such as  schizophrenia and delusional disorder is that people with psychotic disorders believe that  their fears are well-founded and based in reality. Unlike a phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorders are marked by consistent worrying and dwelling on the fear, even when the feared situation is far away. Sufferers perform rituals (compulsions) that make them minimize anxiety. ( For example:  a person who leaves his house, locks the door and then goes back 30 times  to check if the door is locked, because he is afraid someone will rob him.)

Another similar disorder is the generalized anxiety disorder. The symptoms are similar to phobias, but the main difference is that sufferers worry excessively over multiple daily situations. The perform tasks with difficulty but they don’t avoid specific situations or objects. It is also easy to mistake depression for agoraphobia or social phobia. People with depression prefer to stay at home, alone and turn inward, rather than socialising with other people. They don’t fear specific situations and they don’t show a phobic response.

Futher, cibophobia (fear of food, or fear of eating in public) should not be mistaken with eating disorders. Eating disorders are caused by a distorted view of a person’s body weight and shape, not by food.

Finally, we have to distinguish a phobia from fear:

Normal Fear Phobia
Feeling anxious when flying through turbulence or taking off during a storm Not going to your best friend’s island wedding because you’d have to fly there
Experiencing butterflies when peering down from the top of a skyscraper or climbing a tall ladder Turning down a great job because it’s on the 10th floor of the office building
Getting nervous when you see a pit bull or a Rottweiler Steering clear of the park because you might see a dog
Feeling a little queasy when getting a shot or when your blood is being drawn Avoiding necessary medical treatments or doctor’s checkups because you’re terrified of needles

Treatment:

Many psychologists believe that the causes of phobias lie in a combination of genetic predisposition mixed with environmental , cultural and social causes (traumatic events). Neurotransmitter-receptor abnormalities in the brain are suspected to play a part in the development of social phobias. There is also a theory that humans are biologically prone to acquire fear of certain noxious animals or situations, such as rats, frogs or cockroaches. Those fears are programmed in our genes by our ancestors who used to live among all living species and were exposed to dangers.

How to face the fear and cope with it on your own:

Sheryl Jackson, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of Alabama, says that most sufferers of specific phobias do not need specific professional help. Instead they find ways to accept the cause of their panic and cope with the fear. The most effective way to do this is by gradually and repeatedly exposing yourself to what you fear in a safe and controlled way. With each exposure, you will begin to realize that the worst isn’t going to happen and you won’t die. Instead, you will feel confidence. The more confident you get, the more control you have over the phobia and in time it lose its intensity. In order to accomplish this, it is good to make a “Ladder list”. Write down the most frightening situations related with your phobia; then arrange the items beginning with least scary to the most scary; finally, write down with big letters your end goal. Then face the ladder, begin facing your fear. For example, let’s take the Aviophobia. The list may look like this:

1. Booking/watching/taking a ticket

2. Packing a suitcase

3. Driving to the airport

4. Staying at the airport

5. Watching planes take off and land

6. Boarding the plane

7. Listening to the flight attendant

8. Turbulence

9. Landing

Begin with the first event – take an airplane ticket and look at it until you start feel more comfortable doing it. Then, go to the airport and expose yourself to the environment as longer as you can, in order to get used to it. When you are ready, start watching the landings and take offs. Practice until your anxiety starts to lessen. If a step is too hard, break it in smaller steps and go slower.

However, some phobias cause significant problems and require long-term professional help. In a clinical setting the sufferer meets with a trained specialist and confronts the feared object or situation in a preplanned, gradual way and learns to control his/her physical phobia reactions. The behaviorists believe that” the response of a phobic fear is a reflex acquired to non-dangerous stimuli”. In other words – dangerous stimuli that cause normal fears, like poisonous snakes for example, have been extrapolated to non-poisonous ones as well. According to this theory, if a person is exposed to non-dangerous stimuli time after time, without experiencing any harm, the phobic response extinguishes itself.

Another form of exposure treatment is the counter-conditioning. This method trains the patients to substitute a relaxation response for the fear when they encounter with the phobic stimulus. The patient also observes other people encountering the phobic stimuli who are responding with relaxation rather than fear. With this technique the patient is encouraged to imitate the model given and thereby relieve his/her phobia. Behavioral therapy treatment, combined with anti-anxiety or antidepressant mediactions (like Paxil, Prozac and Zoloft) works best for social phobias, considered as the most disabling and difficult to treat.

Hypnosis is also a great way to escape from a phobia’s clutches. It is recommended for mild cases, where the sufferer recognizes the triggers of fear and seeks help to control his/her reaction. Posthypnotic suggestions help patients control their breathing, slow their heart rate and achieve a relaxed state of mind. In time they are able to deal with the obstacle in a calm and rational manner. For severe cases of phobias, caused by a traumatic childhood event, hypnotherapists apply a technique called “age regression”. Usually traumatic events are stored in the deep subconscious of our mind and cannot be recalled by the conscious mind. The powerful “age regression” technique guides the person back in time and helps him/her to re-examine the event that triggered the fear from an objective point of view. The aim is to reveal the cause and eliminate the fear of losing control in a similar situation.

Once phobias develop they may be difficult to overcome with no treatment. We typically turn into slaves of fear avoidance, which prevents us from learning that our phobias may not be as frightening and dangerous as we think. This prevents us from proving to ourselves that we indeed can cope with our phobia if we give ourselves the chance to do so. The relief we feel each time we avoid our biggest fear, simply encourages us to continue avoiding it.

It is up to you to take a step forward and break free. Remember, if you want to conquer a phobia, you must get out of your comfort zone!

Read also:

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Learn how to Live stresslessly

Leave the Job you Hate

Perfectionists are Imperfect

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