By Anthony Lawson
A person who suffers with a phobia can experience an overwhelming anxiety which may lead to maladaptive and irrational behaviours to avoid the cause of their fear. Phobias are classed as a form of anxiety disorder triggered by certain situations or objects, and can affect anyone, irrespective of age, gender and socioeconomic standing.
A phobia is an extreme, exaggerated fear of a specific object or situation. The range of identified phobias is considerable – from the more common such as a fear of flying or social situations, to the more obscure – a fear of mirrors, belly buttons and shadows. In contrast, fear is a normal response to a dangerous stimulus such as suddenly encountering a poisonous snake. It is an inherent survival mechanism that humans possess as babies. Within a clinical context, many mental health professionals categorise the majority of phobias into different groups:
Specific phobias as in a fear of reptiles or enclosed spaces. These can arise from an encounter with a situation or an object. People who experience these will avoid the triggers because of their alarm and panic. Many of these types of phobia can be linked to a particular traumatic event, usually when young.
Social phobias are considered to be more complex. It is a fear concerning people or social situations where someone can be inordinately self conscious and embarrassed by speaking in public, eating in a public place or being negatively judged by others.
Agoraphobia is the fear of open spaces that would be difficult, or impossible, to escape from.
There are a variety of causes that may lead to the development of phobias. It may be the result of extreme stress related to a particular situation, object or place. The stress may present itself as a fear about another situation, object or place. In such cases of an irrational fear, the person selects something else as a target for the phobia that can be easily avoided, rather than the true stimulus which may be difficult or impossible to avoid. A phobia can be inherited or learnt from someone who serves as a role model and even a person who is in close contact, when that person is in a fearful state. Fear can be contagious.
Phobic symptoms can vary, but the essential features are anxiety and avoidance. The symptoms may become increasingly severe when a person is away from home, particularly if alone. Agoraphobics and claustrophobics can experience increased restrictions in their lives.
Phobias can develop over time and can become progressively worse. Initially for some, the phobia only occurs in the actual presence of the stimulus, as with a fear of flying and is only felt when the plane takes off. With others, the fear may arise long before boarding the aircraft. In extreme cases the phobia is at its peak when individuals feel frightened at the thought of flying.
There are a number of different approaches for the treatment of phobias, the most common being ‘Systematic Desensitisation,’ developed by psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe. He noted that sensations of relaxation and anxiety are incompatible – you cannot be both relaxed and anxious at the same time. In desensitisation, the person is exposed to the situations they fear, on a rising scale of intensity. At the same time, they are encouraged to remain in a relaxed state. This allows the symptoms of anxiety to reduce in a safe and controlled way.
Some phobias may be more effectively treated by medication, as well as by talking and cognitive therapies. The aim of all approaches is to allow those whose lives are ruled by their anxieties, to take control of themselves and their fears, and be back in the driving seat of their lives.
Anthony Lawson (MBE BEM MSc BSc (Hons) Psych, D.Hyp, PDCHyp, MBSCH) is a clinical hypnotherapist registered with the British Society of Clinical Hypnosis. Tel: 07765 140 812 www.hypnotherapyhereford.com