What are specific phobias? Specific Phobias are persistent fears of specific situations, objects, people or activities that are considered irrational and excessive (e.g. the sight of blood, insects, flying, heights). Unlike experiencing brief fear, anxiety, or discomfort provoked by certain situations (e.g. giving a presentation) or objects (e.g. seeing a spider), specific phobias are long lasting, produce intense psychological and physical reactions and can even trigger excessive anxiety by just thinking about the source of the phobia. These phobias can often be accompanied by a sense of danger that is irrational or exaggerated. Individuals with specific phobias will often go to great lengths to avoid situations where they may have to face the source of the specific phobia in a way that can severely restrict and impact their daily life.
Specific phobias can be divided into 6 categories:
• Animal phobias (e.g. dogs, insects)
• Situational phobias (e.g. dental procedures, enclosed places)
• Natural environment phobias (e.g. germs, heights)
• Bodily phobias (e.g. injections, seeing blood)
• Sexual phobias (e.g. fear of contracting an STD)
• Other phobias (e.g. fear of costumed characters)
Symptoms of specific phobias Do you often experience a strong and irrational fear about an activity, situation or object that poses little danger or is out of proportion to the actual threat? Does this object, situation or activity trigger an immediate anxious response? Do you exert significant effort and feel compelled to avoid the object, situation, or activity? Do you recognise that the fear is irrational or excessive? Does this persistent, intense and unreasonable fear in the presence of or in anticipation of the specific activity, situation or object interfere with your social, work or routine activities? If so, you may have a specific phobia and should seek professional help.
What causes specific phobias? Specific phobias are most likely caused by a combination of factors. Having another anxiety disorder, mood disorder or a relative with a specific phobia may increase the risk of developing this disorder. Specific phobias typically arise during childhood or early adulthood and in some cases may be in response to a traumatic early experience. Particular negative incidents may play a role, for example a child who was bitten by a dog might later develop a specific phobia for dogs. Experiencing long-term stress could also instigate feelings of depression and anxiety and diminish your ability to cope with specific situations. This in turn, could make you feel more anxious in certain situations, which could over a lengthier period, contribute to the development of a specific phobia.
Treating specific phobias Specific phobias are highly treatable conditions. Individuals who seek treatment typically see a significant improvement with a positive impact on their quality of life. There is a range of treatment options available including CBT, anxiety management relaxation techniques and medication. One or a combination of these treatments can be effective.
Typical CBT sessions involve talking through one’s problems with a certified clinician, with the aim to understand how one’s own thoughts impact one’s negative emotions and behaviours. Patient and clinician then work together to alter these negative thought patterns and behaviours, in order to improve one’s feelings and experiences. One aspect of CBT treatment that is often used in the treatment of specific phobias is the gradual exposure to your fear, which allows you to gain control over your reaction to your fear. This process is known as exposure therapy or desensitisation.
Medication, such as tranquilisers, is sometimes prescribed as a short-term treatment for treating specific phobias. Making lifestyle changes such as regular exercise, reducing the intake of caffeine and getting enough restful sleep can also assist in diminishing some of the symptoms associated with specific phobias such as panic attacks.