What Is A Phobia? ...Phobias and Fears

A phobia is an irrational fear, a kind of anxiety disorder in which the sufferer has a relentless dread of a situation, living creature, place or thing. People with a phobia go to great lengths to avoid a perceived danger which is much greater in their minds than in real life. If confronted with the source of their phobia, the person will suffer enormous distress, which can interfere with their normal function; it can sometimes lead to total panic. For some people, even thinking about their phobia is immensely distressing.

A phobia starts when a person begins organizing their lives around avoiding the object of their fear. A phobia is much more serious than a simple fear. Sufferers have an overpowering need to steer clear of anything which triggers their anxiety.

If the phobia is of something the phobic person very rarely comes into contact with, such as snakes, their daily lives will not be affected. However, some complex phobias are impossible to avoid, such as agoraphobia (fear of leaving home or public places) or social phobia (fear of being among groups of people).

“Normal” fear vs. phobias

It is normal and even helpful to experience fear in dangerous situations. Fear is an adaptive human response. It serves a protective purpose, activating the automatic “fight-or-flight” response. With our bodies and minds alert and ready for action, we are able to respond quickly and protect ourselves.

But with phobias the threat is greatly exaggerated or nonexistent. For example, it is only natural to be afraid of a snarling Doberman, but it is irrational to be terrified of a friendly poodle on a leash, as you might be if you have a dog phobia.

The difference between normal fear and a phobiaNormal fear Phobia

Feeling anxious when flying through turbulence or taking off during a storm 
Experiencing butterflies when peering down from the top of a skyscraper or climbing a tall ladder 
Getting nervous when you see a pit bull or a Rottweiler 
Feeling a little queasy when getting a shot or when your blood is being drawn 

Not going to your best friend’s island wedding because you’d have to fly there
Turning down a great job because it’s on the 10th floor of the office building
Steering clear of the park because you might see a dog
Avoiding necessary medical treatments or doctor’s checkups because you’re terrified of needles

What are the signs and symptoms of phobias?

A symptom is something the patient feels and describes, such as a headache, while a sign is something other people, as well as the patient can detect, as may be the case with a rash, swelling or bruising.

The following symptoms are common across the majority of phobias:
When exposed to the source of the fear there is a sensation of uncontrollable anxiety

A feeling that at all costs, the source of that fear must be avoided

The anxiety is so overwhelming when confronted with the source of the fear, that the person is unable to function properly

It is common for sufferers to acknowledge that their fears are irrational, unreasonable and exaggerated; however, in spite of this, they are unable to control their feelings

Panic and intense anxiety, which may include:

- sweating
- abnormal breathing (panting, trying to catch your breath) 
- accelerated heartbeat
- trembling
- hot flushes or chills
- a sensation of choking
- chest pains, chest tightness
- butterflies in the stomach
- pins and needles
- dry mouth
- confusion and disorientation
- nausea
- dizziness
- headache

A feeling of anxiety when the source of the fear is not there but is simply thought about

Children may cry, become very clingy, attempt to hide behind a parent's legs or an object, or have tantrums

What is the treatment for phobias?

Helping those who suffer from phobias is thought to be most effective whenpsychotherapy and medications that are specific to the treatment of phobia are both used. One form of psychotherapy involves the supportive and gradual exposure of the individual with phobias to circumstances that are increasingly close to the one they are phobic about (desensitization). These situations can either consist of actual or computer-generated anxiety-provoking stimuli.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been found to significantly decrease phobic symptoms by helping the phobia sufferer change his or her way of thinking. CBT uses three techniques to accomplish this goal:
Didactic component: This phase involves educating the individual about phobias and treatment and helps to set up positive expectations for therapy and promote the cooperation of the person with a phobia.
Cognitive component: It helps to identify the thoughts and assumptions that influence the person's behavior, particularly those that may predispose him or her to being phobic.
Behavioral component: This employs behavior-modifying techniques to teach the individual with a phobia more effective strategies for dealing with problems.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) medications are often used to treat phobias, particularly when desensitization and CBT are inadequately effective. These medications affect levels of serotonin in the brain. Examples of these medications include fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline(Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), fluvoxamine (Luvox), citalopram (Celexa), andescitalopram (Lexapro). The possible side effects of these medications can vary greatly from person to person and depend on which medication is being used. Common side effects of this group of medications include dry mouth, sexual dysfunction, nausea, tremors, trouble sleeping, blurred vision,constipation or soft stools, and dizziness. In very rare cases, some people have been thought to become more acutely more anxious or depressed once on the medication, even trying to or completing suicide or homicide. Children and teens are thought to be particularly vulnerable to this rare possibility.

Phobias are also sometimes treated using beta-blocker medications, which decrease the physical symptoms associated with panic by blocking the effects that adrenaline has on the body. An example of a beta blocker ispropranolol. These disorders are also sometimes treated with drugs in a medication class known as benzodiazepines. This class of medications causes relaxation but is used with caution these days to treat anxiety due to the possibility of addiction and the risk of overdose, especially if taken when alcohol is also being consumed. Examples of medications from that group include diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), lorazepam (Ativan), andclonazepam (Klonopin).

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