For most people, a mild fear of spiders or mice has little impact on their lives. However, for others, phobias can cause huge amounts of discomfort or even be completely debilitating.
For these people, phobias are no laughing matter and may result in a restricted lifestyle, as the phobia interferes with occupations or social activities. Imagine the businessman who is afraid of flying or picking up the telephone, the university student who is scared of enclosed lecture theatres, children who are scared of the dark, or individuals who are too afraid of doctors to seek medical help.
If a phobia is causing you to experience extreme distress then it might be time to seek some extra support.
What is a Phobia?
A phobia is defined as an intense and persistent fear of something, which in reality, poses no threat.
People with phobias become immediately anxious when they are confronted with (or even think about) the phobic stimulus. Furthermore, while many people with phobias realise that their fear is excessive and unreasonable, they cannot control their feelings no matter how hard they try.
In psychology, phobias are categorised into 5 subgroups according to the primary focus of the fear:
- Animal (e.g., spiders, dogs, birds)
- Natural environment (e.g., heights, water, storms)
- Blood, injection and injury (e.g., injections, doctors, hospitals, cuts)
- Situational (e.g., planes, elevators, enclosed spaces)
- Other (e.g., clowns, loud noises, vomiting)
While phobias can be devastating, the good news is that they are highly treatable and can be cured. Extensive research has shown that exposure therapy is the optimal treatment for specific phobias.
What is Exposure Therapy?
In exposure therapy, the person with the phobia is encouraged to face the feared stimulus. This can either occur in reality (called in-vivo exposure), or through imagining it (imaginal exposure).
Usually, exposure therapy is based on a hierarchy progressing from the least to the most feared objects and situations. For example, if you have a fear of injections, you may start by looking at pictures of needles, then you might hold a needle. Together with your psychologist you might then go to the doctors surgery to talk about getting an injection. The final step would be for you to have an injection.
Exposure therapy works by gradually increasing the level of exposure to your feared stimulus, which allows you to gain control. Most exposure therapies also include a relaxation component (which aims to help clients calm down and tolerate fear) and/or a cognitive component (which aims to help clients challenge their unhelpful thoughts, e.g., “The dog is going to attack me” or “I can’t deal with this fear”).
Should I Seek Treatment?
If your phobia has little impact on your life, you probably don’t need to be too concerned about it. However, if you experience any of the following, then it might be time to seek some professional help:
- Your phobia causes you to experience intense fear, anxiety or panic;
- You recognise your fear is excessive and unreasonable, however can’t stop the feelings;
- You avoid certain places/situations/people because of your phobia;
- Avoidance of your phobia interferes with your normal routine, occupation, social activities or relationships or causes you significant distress;
- You have had the phobia for at least 6 months.
Phobias can take over your life and stop you from doing the things that you love. Many people affected by phobias never seek out treatment, which means they sadly live a life of fear and anxiety.
Author: Ashley Cooper, B Psych (Hons), M Psych (Clinical), MAPS.
Ashley Cooper is a registered psychologist with clinical psychology training, working with children, adolescents and adults. She is passionate about helping individuals to overcome their mental health issues and improve their quality of life.
To make an appointment with Ashley Cooper try Online Booking – Mt Gravatt or call (07) 3088 5422.