Specific phobias are complex psychological issues that are not completely understood in the medical field. From existing research, experts know that they can be caused by a number of different factors including genetic predisposition. Some individuals may not have a specific environmental cause for their phobia but in many cases, the fear can be caused by a traumatic event.
Phobias are characterized by an intense fear of a specific situation or thing that may be associated with a traumatic experience. The fear often becomes unreasonable and triggers severe anxiety whenever the person is confronted with their phobia even if they are not in any danger. People can have phobias about a wide variety of things such as dogs, spiders, heights, and many others depending on their personal issues.
When someone develops a phobia it can occur in different ways but it typically develops at some point in their childhood. Phobias are distinct from normal childhood fears which tend to diminish over time because they can actually grow more intense as they get older. Normal childhood fears can be eased by appropriate reassurance but phobias will continue to persist in spite of the child being told that there is no danger in the situation.
If a child does not get professional help for their phobia it can continue into adulthood as they continue to avoid what they are afraid of to prevent an anxiety attack. Their reaction to being exposed to their phobia is often uncontrollable and their instinct is to stay away as much as possible. However, avoiding exposure to the phobia will prevent it from ever being resolved.
Symptoms of a Phobia
As someone is exposed to their personal phobia they will have very strong mental and physical reactions that become overwhelming. They could exhibit any number of these symptoms:
- Increased heart rate
- Sweating and trembling
- Hot flushes or chills
- Difficulty breathing
- Dizziness or feeling faint
- Feelings of dread
- Fear of dying
When a person is confronted with their phobia they become paralyzed by these symptoms and their feelings of fear. More complex phobias like agoraphobia (fear of public spaces) and other social phobias can make it very difficult to lead a normal and healthy life.
Trauma and Phobias
Many phobias develop because the person has a traumatic experience that they begin to associated with the object of their fear. If a child is attacked by a dog when they are young then they might be afraid of every dog that they come across as they grow up. Someone who has an experience where they almost drowned might develop a phobia of water.
In some cases even observing a traumatic event can cause someone to develop a phobia. If they witness a terrible traffic accident where someone is covered in blood they later may have a phobia of blood, cars or busy intersections. Phobias tend to become more severe when a person deliberate avoids the situation or thing that they are afraid of.
The more a person avoids their phobia, the less opportunity they will have to prove to themselves that it is not as dangerous as they believe. Avoiding the situation will allow the fear to build up and the negative assumptions about the phobia will continue to grow. Even for those who have not had a traumatic experience associated with their phobia, the same type of avoidance is often what causes the phobia to become out of control.
Treating Phobias through Exposure Therapy
Because avoidance is often what makes a phobia develop, many therapy strategies focus on a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure to the phobia itself. Exposure therapy focuses on getting patients to change their response to the object or situation that they are afraid of and cognitive behavioral therapy helps them learn to view the phobia differently. It can be a very difficult process but it is the best way for patients to eventually be able to face their fear and become less vulnerable to it in their daily life.
During exposure therapy, patients are given gradual and repeated exposure to their phobia as they identify their specific thoughts, feelings and reactions. Therapy can progress slowly from merely thinking about the phobia, then looking at a picture of it and eventually being exposed in person. Throughout the process patients learn to minimize their response with help from the therapist and prevent their reaction from becoming problematic.
With cognitive behavioral therapy, patients learn techniques that can help them view their phobia differently and cope with it in a healthier way. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by their emotions, patients can eventually become more confident in handling the thoughts and sensations that come up when they are exposed to the object of their fear. Over time patients are able to reduce their anxiety and more easily manage their phobia in everyday life.