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What is a Phobia?

Like ‘awesome’ and ‘epic’, there are some words in the English language that have been made redundant through overuse. Unfortunately, this also applies to the word ‘phobia’, when what people are really referring to are rational fears and concerns.

Many people admit to being uneasy around spiders – 1in 3 women and 1 in 4 men, to be precise – and not a lot of people feel their most comfortable on a plane or atop a building. In fact, this is our body exhibiting a natural response; our innate instinct to retreat from potentially dangerous situations. In these scenarios, we would leave the spider alone, get through a plane ride with music and movies, and take the lift down to a lower floor.

This is where the term ‘phobia’ has been misused. A rational fear becomes a phobia when a person’s response to the object or scenario becomes irrational – their reaction to a perceived threat is far beyond what the situation calls for and can result in full-scale panic attacks. These anxious reactions are automatic and often uncontrollable– even if the person experiencing it knows logically that their fear is unnecessary, they cannot control their body’s response. Symptoms of fear include sweating, racing heart, trembling, difficulty breathing, and confusion and disorientation.

How many recognised phobias are there?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, specific phobias can be put into five categories:

  • Animals (snakes, spiders, dogs, sharks)
  • Nature (darkness, heights, the ocean)
  • Medical (injections, broken bones, blood)
  • Specific situations (flying, being in enclosed spaces)
  • Other (loud noises, drowning)

There is a generally accepted list of common phobias, but some phobias can be quite niche. In this scenario, many people use the Greek or Latin translation of the word as the prefix, followed by the suffix -phobia.

We’ve likely all heard of the most common phobias affecting Australians: trypanophobia (fear of needles/injections), agoraphobia (fear of open spaces), acrophobia (fear of heights), pteromerhanophobia (fear of flying), claustrophobia (fear of small/enclosed spaces), arachnophobia (fear of spiders), and ophidiophobia (fear of snakes). Around 1 in 20 Australians suffer from a social phobia.

How do people develop phobias?

Specific phobias usually develop during a person’s early development, particularly in childhood, and can stay around well into adulthood unless they are naturally resolved, or a person seeks help to overcome them. Whilst sometimes there is no obvious cause of phobias, research has linked them to certain factors.

Genetic factors

If you or someone you know has developed a phobia, take a look at their family history. It has been observed that phobias can run through generations, specifically animal and situational phobias, and children of people with phobias have a high chance of developing the same ones.

Direct learning

These phobias develop from a negative personal experience, typically during childhood. For instance, a child who is bitten by a dog may become cynophobic, and being trapped in a small space may lead to claustrophobia.

Indirect learning

You don’t even need to have had a personal experience to develop an irrational fear. Some phobias are learned, growing in response to observing someone else’s terror towards a scenario or object.

How can you cure a phobia?

Oftentimes people cope with their phobias on their own using avoidance tactics. This means that they deliberately remove or prevent themselves from situations where their fears may be triggered. A person with pteromerhanophobia won’t book themselves a plane ticket; someone with alektorophobia (fear of chickens) will never set foot on a farm. However, avoidance is not considered a long-term answer for phobias as it can restrict a person’s opportunities and movements, and inhibits them from learning coping strategies.

Many different professionals in the medical field have their own theories as to how to cure a person’s phobias, but exposure therapy is considered to be the most effective. In these guided sessions, the person is encouraged to confront the source of their phobia by imagining themselves in the scenario and gradually, over many sessions, building up to physically putting themselves in the situation they fear. It is a process that may take weeks, months and years as the patient grows more comfortable tackling their phobia head on, but the rewards are well worth the effort.

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