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Psychology of Phobias

Just about everyone is afraid of something. But when that fear controls actions, causes a person to completely avoid situations and results in panic at the thought of encountering the cause of angst, the ordinary becomes extraordinary and might be classified as a phobia rather than a mundane fear.

Understanding Phobias

Phobias are irrational fears that are characterized as anxiety disorders. Those who suffer from phobias have an intense dread of the situation, creature, thing or place they fear the most. This condition is said to affect more than 10 million adults in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

People with phobias will go to great lengths to avoid the source of their fear. In the case of simple phobias, such as a fear of spiders, avoidance is generally easy. For those with complex phobias, such as agoraphobia, the fear of being trapped in a situation with no escape, avoidance can disrupt the entire pattern of life as some sufferers even refuse to leave their own homes.

Types of Phobias

There are two main types of phobias – specific and complex:

  • Specific – Also known as a simple phobia, this condition involves an irrational fear of a thing, a certain situation, creature or place. Some examples include fear of bats, chirotophobia; dogs, cynophobia; flying, aviophobia; and snakes, opidiophobia.
  • Complex – This type of phobia is more disabling than a simple phobia as it centers on deep-rooted fear and anxiety related to certain situations and incidents. The two main types of this classification are:
    • Social phobia – Social anxiety disorder involves an intense aversion to social situations. Sufferers fear being embarrassed or humiliated in public and will often avoid large crowd settings.
    • Agoraphobia – This is a fear of being stuck in a situation with no escape. Sufferers may avoid shopping malls, public transportation and other confining, crowded areas. In some cases, those with agoraphobia find leaving their homes unbearable.

The causes of phobias are largely unknown, but there does appear to be a family connection. Offspring often display the same phobias as their parents, which may indicate a genetic or learned link.

Treatment Options

Phobias can be disabling, altering the flow of suffers’ lives, preventing them from enjoying certain situations or even causing them to retreat from social situations altogether. Those who suffer from a phobia, specific or complex, will find psychologists and psychiatrists offer treatment options that may help. Some of the more common treatment options include:

  • Medications – Prescriptions such as beta blockers, antidepressants and sedatives may help in the treatment of phobias by reducing anxiety.
  • Desensitization or exposure therapy – This form of therapy is meant to change the response to the object of the phobia through guided, repeated exposure to the source of fear.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy – This involves providing sufferers with techniques to help them cope better with the point of fear by teaching them to view the object or situation differently.
  • Flooding – Like desensitization therapy, this involves exposure to the point of fear. The difference is this is an intense exposure model.

The appropriate course of action will vary based on the individual, the type of phobia and its intensity, among other factors.

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