Phobias are when someone has an irrational fear of a specific situation, object or activity.
Examples are; fear of driving, fear of snakes, fear of public speaking, performance anxiety and stage fright. Sufferers recognize that their fear is out of proportion to any actual danger but are unable to control it or even explain it.
Phobias are the most common form of anxiety disorder being present in between 9% and 18% of the population. Taken together phobias are the most common form of mental illness in women and the second most common in men over 25. Phobias in children are also quite common, severe errors are present in about 10-15% of children and specific phobias are found in about 5% of children.
Types of Phobias
There are three types of phobias:
1. Agorophobia which is the fear of being alone or being in an open space.
2. Social phobia, typified by the fear of embarrassing oneself in public.
3. Specific phobia which is the fear of a single specific object such as fear of dogs or fear of heights.
Causes and Incidence of Phobias
The precise cause of most phobias is unknown, but it generally accepted that phobias arise from a combination of external and internal factors.
Many specific phobias can be traced back to a specific triggering event, such as a traumatic experience at an early age.
Social phobias typically begin in late childhood more complex causes that are not entirely known at this time. Most phobic patients have no family history of psychiatric disorders, although it is likely that heredity, genetics, and brain chemistry have some bearing on the development of phobias and together with life experiences these major factors are in the development of anxiety disorders, phobias and panic attacks.
Signs and Symptoms of Phobias
Phobia sufferers show all the signs of severe anxiety when confronted with the feared object or situation. Complaints of: dizziness, feeling ill, difficulty in breathing, dissociation from reality, a pounding heart and chest pains are common and are often accompanied by an unreasoning panic.
A development of avoiding the objects of phobias is that this kind of behavior can lead to loss of self esteem which can in turn often reinforce the fear related to the phobia. Often this can further develop into depression.
Treatment of phobias
Specific phobias in children often resolve themselves as the child matures but Agorophobia and social phobias are usually chronic and have in the past been difficult to treat.
New techniques to help sufferers break the fear producing links are appearing: including the use of virtual reality or imagery exercises, cognitive behavior therapy, hypnotherapy coupled with Neuro-linguistic programming and “the one move technique”.
Drug treatment includes; anxiolytics, tricyclic antidepressants, monoamine oxidase inhibitors and serotonin reuptake inhibitors for Agoraphobia or social phobia. Gabapentin has been used for social phobia and beta blockers may help with performance anxiety.