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What is a phobia?

A phobia is an anxiety reaction triggered by an internal or external stimulus which causes the body’s “fight or flight” response to activate. Phobias are extremely common, and can range in intensity from person to person. Often people can become phobic of non-threatening things which makes them appear irrational.

A phobia is different from a fear of something. It is natural to be frightened if being attacked by a dog, or being in a car crash, but not terrified at the thought of these things happening. Phobias can take over a persons life, restricting normal activities in order to avoid the object of the phobia.

There are two types of phobia:

  1. Specific phobias

    A specific phobia has an obvious trigger. This can be anything from a dog, going to the dentist (Dentophobia), vomiting (Emetophobia) or spiders (arachnophobia) right through to driving a car (Amaxophobia) or the sound of thunder (Astraphobia).

  2. Non-specific phobias

    With a non-specific phobia, it is not usually obvious what the trigger that causes the phobia is. Social phobia, for example, could be caused by a number of triggers such as a person not wanting to be the center of attention or being in a crowd or any number of other triggers. Other examples of non-specific phobias are agrophobia (fear of open spaces) and claustrophobia (fear or enclosed spaces).

Why do people get phobias?

Our evolutionary history has given us the mechanism for becoming phobic as a method for survival. In primitive conditions when coming into contact with something dangerous, the mind/body would learn to create the optimum state for survival – a panic attack.

This type of learning is not intellectual or rational. If you had to think, “now would be a good time to have a panic attack” our species would have died out long ago. This type of learning takes place at an emotional level so that the response can bypass the ‘thinking brain’. Just like Pavlov’s dogs were conditioned to salivate when they heard a bell, we can become conditioned to become anxious to any subject or situation.

An immediate phobic response to a predatory or poisonous animal would have been exceedingly useful as the anxiety gives the body the resources to either fight or run – this is where the term “fight or flight” comes from.

In today’s complex world however, this learning mechanism often works in an inappropriate way. For example, a phobia of non-poisonous spiders is not appropriate, as they are not life threatening.

How do people become phobic?

To become phobic, all you need is a high anxiety state paired with an object. The object does not have to be the cause of the anxiety. For example, watching a horror film whilst there is thunder and lightning going outside can cause people to become frightened of thunder and lightning, even though the anxiety is caused by the film.

Phobias can also be generated through the misuse of the imagination – thinking often about having a phobia in detail (this is really negative self hypnosis) is enough to generate a phobia. Children often get phobias by seeing a phobia parent react to their phobia, or when they are told about a phobic reaction.

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