A phobia is an overwhelming and unreasonable fear of an object or situation that poses little real danger. Unlike the brief anxiety most people feel when they give a speech or take a test, a phobia is long-lasting, causes intense physical and psychological reactions, and can affect your ability to function normally at work or in social settings.
Several types of phobias exist. Some people fear large, open spaces. Others are unable to tolerate certain social situations. And still others have a specific phobia, such as a fear of snakes, elevators or flying.
Not all phobias need treatment, but if a phobia affects your daily life, a number of therapies are available that can help you overcome your fears — often permanently.
Phobias are divided into three main categories:
No matter what type of phobia you have, it's likely to produce the following reactions:
When to see a doctor
Much is still unknown about the actual cause of phobias. There does appear to be a link between your own phobias and the phobias of your parents, however. Children may learn phobias by observing a family member's phobic reaction to an object or a situation — for example, a fear of snakes or spiders.
Brain chemicals, genetics and traumatic experiences also appear to influence the development of phobias.
These factors may increase your risk of phobias:
Although phobias may seem silly to others, they can be devastating to the people who have them, causing problems that extend into and affect many aspects of life.
Preparing for your appointment
If you've made the choice to seek help for a phobia, you've taken a huge first step. Start by talking to your primary care doctor. If it seems that you have a genuine phobia, you'll likely be referred to a mental health provider for further evaluation and treatment. These suggestions can help you get the most from your appointment.
Although your doctor is likely to ask you a lot of questions about your symptoms and concerns, you should be prepared to ask questions, too. For example:
In addition to your prepared questions, don't hesitate to ask questions at any time during your appointment.
Tests and diagnosis
There are no laboratory tests for phobias. Instead, the diagnosis is based on a thorough clinical interview and diagnostic guidelines. Your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms and take a medical, psychiatric and social history.
To be diagnosed with a phobia, you must meet certain criteria detailed in a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This manual is published by the American Psychiatric Association and is used by mental health providers to help them diagnose conditions and by insurance companies to reimburse for treatment.
In children, additional diagnostic criteria for social phobia include:
Treatments and drugs
Your doctor or a mental health provider may suggest medications or behavior therapy or both to treat phobias. Most adults don't get better on their own and may require some type of treatment. The goal of phobia treatment is to reduce your anxiety and fear and to help you better manage your reactions to the object or situation that causes them.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a more comprehensive form of therapy. It involves working with a therapist to learn ways to view and cope with the feared object or situation differently. You learn alternative beliefs about your fears and the impact they have on your life. There's special emphasis on learning to develop a sense of mastery and control of your thoughts and feelings.
Coping and support
Childhood fears, such as fear of the dark, of monsters or of being left alone, are common, and most children outgrow them. But if your child has a persistent, excessive fear that's limiting his or her ability to function in daily life, talk to your doctor.
To help your child cope with fears:
If you have unreasonable fears, consider getting psychological help, especially if you have children. Although genetics probably play a role in the development of phobias, repeatedly seeing someone else's phobic reaction can trigger a phobia in children. By dealing with your own fears, you might not pass them on to your children.
Last Updated: 2011-01-07
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