When is it more than fear? Our Health Writer, Colleen Shannon, finds out.
WE all experience fear; it’s part of being human and it can be a useful survival instinct, too. When a specific fear looms larger than the threat, it may be a phobia, which is a type of anxiety disorder.
Phobias are common, but many people never seek treatment, which is unfortunate because it can be quite effective. To learn more about phobias and how they can be overcome, I asked Laura Peters, Advice and Information Manager at the charity Rethink Mental Illness.
She explained that a phobia is more than just an ordinary fear. It is an overwhelming, increased feeling of danger that is triggered by a specific object, situation, feeling or animal.
With a phobia, the fear is so strong that you start building your life around it, changing your everyday routines and activities just to avoid the trigger. There are different types of phobias. Some people are petrified at the thought of meeting certain animals or insects. For others, a phobia centres around something in their surroundings, like germs.
Common activities like going to the dentist can feel unbearable if you have a situational phobia. Body phobias, such as a fear of blood, are another category.
Specifically, some of the most common phobias are spiders, open or closed spaces, heights, public speaking and flying. We don’t fully understand why phobias happen, but they are often linked to a frightening or stressful experience, especially during childhood.
Our environment or the people around us may also be a factor. If an adult in the family already has a spider phobia, a child in that household may grow up to fear spiders, too.
The effects on your daily life depend on what you fear and how bad the phobia makes you feel. Some phobias don’t cause much disruption, while others are so extreme that it’s a struggle to step outside the front door.
The good news is most phobias can be cured. If you are finding a phobia hard to live with, the first step is to talk to your GP, who can refer you to a therapist if needed.
Exposure therapy, which means slowly building up your tolerance of the thing you fear, is a common treatment. Some people can do this on their own, but always check with a doctor first.
Another possibility is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which helps you change the way you think about and react to emotions or events. This is used mainly for more severe or complex cases.
Occasionally, medication can help with anxiety in the short term, although it’s not a permanent answer.
In addition to talking with your GP, you can learn more about phobias on the NHS Choices website at www.nhs. uk, or on the Rethink Mental Illness website at www.rethink.org, where you will also find details of the charity’s advice lines and support services. ■
Most phobias can be cured