Folks who have fear phobias may develop a fear phobia about most anything under the sun, but in most cases the phobia is shared by many and has an actual name. Animal phobias--cynophobia (dogs), equinophobia (horses), zoophobia (all animals)--are common. So are arachnophobia (spiders) and ophidiophobia (snakes). And, of course, there's the fear of flying (pterygophobia), heights (acrophobia), and confined spaces (claustrophobia).
A most common phobia is the fear of dentists [odontiatophobia] ... People who suffer with this phobia will literally let their teeth rot out because they are afraid to visit a dentist. Most fear phobias do not cause major disruption in a life so sufferers do not seek professional help. Instead, they find ways to avoid whatever it is that triggers their panic, or they simply endure the distress felt when they encounter it. Some may also consult their physicians, requesting medication to help them through a situation, such as an unavoidable airplane trip for someone who is fear-phobic about flying, which fear of flying is more common than you would expect.
A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder. It is a strong, irrational fear of something that poses little or no actual danger. There are many specific phobias. Acrophobia is a fear of heights. You may be able to ski the world's tallest mountains but be unable to go above the 5th floor of an office building. Agoraphobia is a fear of public places, and claustrophobia is a fear of closed-in places. If you become anxious and extremely self-conscious in everyday social situations, you could have a social phobia. Other common phobias involve tunnels, highway driving, water, flying, animals and blood.
People with phobias try to avoid what they are afraid of. If they cannot, they may experience
- Panic and fear
- Rapid heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- A strong desire to get away
Treatment helps most people with phobias. Options include medicines, therapy or both.
Causes of Phobias
Specific phobias are a type of anxiety disorder in which exposure to the feared stimulus may provoke extreme anxiety or a panic attack. Specific phobias are among the most common of all psychiatric disorders, affecting up to 10% of the population.
Common phobias include the fear of:
- Blood, injections, and other medical procedures
- Certain animals (for instance, dogs or snakes)
- Enclosed spaces
- High places
- Insects or spiders
Symptoms of Phobias
Being exposed to the feared object, or even thinking about being exposed to it causes an anxiety reaction.
- This fear or anxiety is out of proportion to (much stronger than) the real threat.
- The person may have excessive sweating, problems controlling the muscles or actions, or rapid heart rate.
The person avoids situations in which contact with the feared object or animal may occur -- for example, avoiding driving through tunnels, if tunnels are the subject of the phobia. This type of avoidance can interfere with job and social functioning.
The person may feel weak or cowardly and lose self-esteem when avoiding the object of the phobia.
Exams and Tests for Phobias
The health care provider will ask about your history of phobia, and will get a description of the behavior from you, your family, and friends.
- Elevated blood pressure
- Rapid heart rate
Treatment for Phobias
The goal of treatment is to help you function effectively. The success of the treatment usually depends on the severity of the phobia.
Systematic desensitization is a technique used to treat phobias. You are asked to relax, then imagine the components of the phobia, working from the least fearful to the most fearful. Gradual exposure to the real-life situation has also been used with success to help people overcome their fears.
Anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications are sometimes used to help relieve the symptoms of phobias.
Behavioral therapies should be used together with drug therapy. These include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy, including learning to recognize and replace panic-causing thoughts
- Pleasant mental imagery
- Relaxation techniques
Behavioral treatment appears to have long-lasting benefits.
Regular exercise, adequate sleep, and regularly scheduled meals may help reduce the frequency of the attacks. Reduce or avoid the use of caffeine, some over-the-counter cold medications, and other stimulants.
Phobia clinics and group therapy are available in some areas to help people deal with common phobias, such as a fear of flying.
Outlook / Prognosis for Phobias
Phobias tend to be chronic, but they can respond to treatment.
Possible Complications of Phobias
Some phobias may have consequences that affect job performance or social functioning. Some anti-anxiety medications used to treat phobias, such as benzodiazepines, may cause physical dependence.
When to Contact a Medical Professional for Phobias
Call for an appointment with your health care provider or a mental health professional if a simple phobia is interfering with life activities.
Fear and anxiety are part of life. You may feel anxious before you take a test or walk down a dark street. This kind of anxiety is useful - it can make you more alert or careful. It usually ends soon after you are out of the situation that caused it. But for millions of people in the United States, the anxiety does not go away, and gets worse over time. They may have chest pains or nightmares. They may even be afraid to leave home. These people have anxiety disorders. Types include
- Panic disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Generalized anxiety disorder
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a type of anxiety disorder. If you have OCD, you have repeated, upsetting thoughts called obsessions. You do the same thing over and over again to try to make the thoughts go away. Those repeated actions are called compulsions.
Examples of obsessions are a fear of germs or a fear of being hurt. Compulsions include washing your hands, counting, checking on things or cleaning. Untreated, OCD can take over your life.
Researchers think brain circuits may not work properly in people who have OCD. It tends to run in families. The symptoms often begin in children or teens. Treatments that combine medicines and therapy are often effective.