A phobia is an abnormal or irrational fear of a situation or object. A?person suffering from a phobia may dwell on the object of his or her fear when it is not even present, and will go to great lengths to avoid it even knowing that it poses little danger. Common phobias include fear of dogs, spiders, heights, flying in airplanes, enclosed spaces, wide open spaces, and social interaction. Between 8 and 18 percent of Americans are believed to suffer from phobias.
A phobia is considered an anxiety disorder. Psychologists use specific criteria to diagnose phobias. These include:
- A persistent unreasonable fear of the object or situation;
- Sudden anxiety or panic brought on by exposure, which might involve inappropriate responses;
- Awareness that the fear and the reaction are unreasonable;
- Avoiding the object or situation if at all possible, even if this interferes with normal life activities and relationships; if it is not possible, feeling extreme distress while exposed to the object or situation;
- Experiencing the unreasonable fear for at least six months.
In addition to the emotional feeling of uncontrollable terror or dread, a person suffering from a phobia may experience physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, trembling, rapid heartbeat, and an overwhelming urge to run. People with social phobias may avoid ever entering social situations.
Phobias can occur for a number of reasons. Psychologists believe that phobias begin when people have an extremely bad or negative experience with an object or situation. They then learn to equate those intense negative feelings with all future encounters with that same object or situation. Sometimes parents may pass irrational fears on to their children in this way.
It is normal to develop fear of dangerous situations after exposure; for example, a child who is bitten by a dog might learn to fear dogs and hesitate to pet strange ones. This fear, however, is not a phobia unless it is unreasonable and interferes with the person's life. Plenty of people have a healthy respect of dogs and their teeth but still manage to spend time around them.
Treating phobias generally involves training a person to modify his or her responses to the frightening stimulus. Cognitive behavioral therapy is especially effective because it trains the patient to use intellectual processes to control physical ones. In exposure therapy, a phobic is exposed to what is feared in the presence of the therapist and directly confronts the object or situation that causes terror. Hypnotism has also been effective in some cases.