Phobias are the most common type of anxiety disorder, with the National Institute of Mental Health estimating that about 10 percent of people in the U.S. suffer from some type of phobia. Through this disorder, a person experiences an extreme or irrational fear of a place, object, animal, or situation. Most people develop subtle fears throughout their lives — they’ll ask a spouse to kill a spider rather than doing it themselves or avoid roller coaster rides that take them to unusual heights. Fears such as these cross the line into phobia, however, when a person begins to organize his or her life around avoiding the object of the fear.
Phobia symptoms and reactions.
The most common types of phobias — agoraphobia, social phobia, or a phobia related to something specific — share similar physical symptoms. These may include one or more of the following:
- Trouble breathing
- Nausea or other gastrointestinal symptoms
- Increased heart rate
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Trouble swallowing or a sense of choking
- Sweating or chills
- Tightness or pain in the chest
Reactions to phobias may vary widely and range from mild anxiety to severe, debilitating panic attacks. These reactions may include:
- Going to great lengths to avoid the feared situation or object
- A sense of powerlessness to control one’s reactions, in spite of awareness that the fear is unreasonable
- Feelings of anxiety or panic in response to simply thinking about the source of fear
- Difficulty carrying out normal activities due to the phobia
Factors that may play a role in phobias.
In many cases, simple phobias begin to develop in childhood between the ages of 4 and 8. These phobias will abate or disappear in most people as they grow older. Complex phobias, however, usually have their onset later in life, between the teenage years and early adulthood, and may continue for years.
Phobias continue to be closely studied to learn more about specific causes, but research to date shows that phobias may be caused by changes in the way the brain functions, genetics, learned behavior, or negative experiences related to a situation or object.
Some people who suffer from specific phobias may also have other anxiety or mood disorders, such as depression. Substance abuse can also play a role when phobia sufferers seek relief with drugs or alcohol.
When to seek treatment for phobias.
When anxiety interferes with a person’s ability to perform a job, function in school, participate in social activities, or other aspects of daily living, treatment for phobias should be considered.
We specialize in the treatment of anxiety disorders such as phobias.
Phobias can be successfully treated with a form of cognitive behavior therapy known as in vivo exposure therapy. This treatment may consist of flooding (rapid exposure to a feared situation or object) and/or systematic desensitization (gradual exposure). Our therapists guide patients through the exposure, helping them through the process of understanding that the feared consequences of their phobias are unreasonable. Over time, patients become conditioned to the feared object or situation.
We also offer virtual reality therapy for phobias which blends the most effective aspects of cognitive behavior therapy and in-vivo exposure therapy. This high-tech treatment method offers a number of benefits:
- It allows the patient to try the therapy with less anxiety.
- It’s private, so patients don’t have to risk potential embarrassment in public.
- The therapy allows patients to experience things or go places they would not ordinarily be able to, and is safer than real-life settings.
- The phobia or its triggers can be experienced without having to travel to an actual location.
Research shows that virtual reality exposure therapy can be very successful over time, and can be used to treat both children and adults for phobias, anxiety disorders, and much more.
Contact us for help.
At The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders, we specialize in treating phobias such as fear of public speaking, fear of flying, fear of getting cancer, and more, as well as related disorders such as panic attacks. If you experience a phobia, please get in touch for a confidential assessment by completing the form at the bottom of this page or calling us at (561) 496-1094.
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