Fear is a powerful evolutionary survival mechanism. But sometimes it goes wrong, resulting in phobias. What do you know about this common mental condition?
John Madden, Madonna, Alfred Hitchcock
What are they?
A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder. All phobias are characterized by the fear of a thing or situation. Phobias are usually dubbed an “irrational” fear, although that’s a slight misnomer. In most cases, the reason for being afraid is quite legitimate – it’s just that the amount of fear is unreasonable.
There are three classes of phobias: social phobias, in which the fear “trigger” involves other people; specific phobias, in which the sufferer spends time and energy to avoid a particular agent or situation that creates anxiety and/or fear; and agoraphobia, the fear of leaving home or other safe place.
Who has it?
Phobias are far and away the most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorder. A study commissioned by the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) determined that between 8.7% and 18.1% of Americans suffer from phobias.
Where do they come from?
Phobias occur when something goes awry with the brains’ processing of a scary or traumatic event. For example, a young child might be startled by a clown at a street fair. Normally, the brain learns and rationalizes that this very loud and brightly colored giant is just a guy in costume. A phobia develops when a part of the brain called the amygdala “decides” that clowns are something that are harmful. The next and subsequent times the sufferer encounters a clown, their brain initiates the physiological fight or flight response (panic, sweating, increased heart rate, and so on.)
Genes have also been implicated in how phobias develop, as well as old fashioned Pavlovian conditioning: parents can teach children to be phobic by repetitively telling their kids to “be careful.” Culture can even play a role – there is a phobia specific to Japan in which an individual is afraid to be overly modest or respectful!
Where have I heard about them?
Television, movies, the internet – phobias are common. Many phobias are ubiquitous enough that they elude the social stigma of other mental disorders.
How are they treated?
It depends on the type and severity of the phobia. Behavioral treatment of phobias focuses on retraining the brain to respond with an appropriate level of fear to an object or situation. Desensitization (systematically exposing the sufferer in increasing levels of the phobic trigger) is the classic approach to treating phobias. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), in which patients learn to replace traumatic memories with calming ones, is also used to treat phobias.