Phobia

A phobia (meaning “fear” or “morbid fear”) is, when used in the context of clinical psychology, a type of anxiety disorder, usually defined as a persistent fear of an object or situation in which the sufferer commits to great lengths in avoiding, typically disproportional to the actual danger posed, often being recognized as irrational. In the event the phobia cannot be avoided entirely the sufferer will endure the situation or object with marked distress and significant interference in social or occupational activities.

The terms distress and impairment as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV-TR) should also take into account the context of the sufferer’s environment if attempting a diagnosis. The DSM-IV-TR states that if a phobic stimulus, whether it be an object or a social situation, is absent entirely in an environment – a diagnosis cannot be made. An example of this situation would be an individual who has a fear of mice (Suriphobia) but lives in an area devoid of mice. Even though the concept of mice causes marked distress and impairment within the individual, because the individual does not encounter mice in the environment no actual distress or impairment is ever experienced.

Proximity and the degree to which escape from the phobic stimulus should also be considered. As the sufferer approaches a phobic stimulus, anxiety levels increase (e.g. as one gets closer to a snake, fear increases in ophidiophobia), and the degree to which escape of the phobic stimulus is limited and has the effect of varying the intensity of fear in instances such as riding an elevator (e.g. anxiety increases at the midway point between floors and decreases when the floor is reached and the doors open).

Finally, a point warranting clarification is that the term phobia is an encompassing term and when discussed is usually done in terms of specific phobias and social phobias. Specific phobias are nouns such as arachnophobia or acrophobia which, as the name implies, are specific, and social phobia are phobias within social situations such as public speaking and crowded areas.

Clinical phobias

Psychologists and psychiatrists classify most phobias into three categories and, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), such phobias are considered to be sub-types of anxiety disorder.1. Social phobia: fears other people or social situations such as performance anxiety or fears of embarrassment by scrutiny of others, such as eating in public. Overcoming social phobia is often very difficult without the help of therapy or support groups. Generalized social phobia (also known as social anxiety disorder or simply social anxiety). Specific social phobia, in which anxiety is triggered only in specific situations. The symptoms may extend to psychosomatic manifestation of physical problems. For example, sufferers of paruresis find it difficult or impossible to urinate in reduced levels of privacy. This goes far beyond mere preference: when the condition triggers, the person physically cannot empty their bladder.

Specific phobias: fear of a single specific panic trigger such as spiders, snakes, dogs, water, heights, flying, catching a specific illness, etc. Many people have these fears but to a lesser degree than those who suffer from specific phobias. People with the phobias specifically avoid the entity they fear.

Agoraphobia: a generalized fear of leaving home or a small familiar ‘safe’ area, and of possible panic attacks that might follow. It may also be caused by various specific phobias such as fear of open spaces, social embarrassment (social agoraphobia), fear of contamination (fear of germs, possibly complicated by obsessive-compulsive disorder) or PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) related to a trauma that occurred out of doors.

Phobias vary in severity among individuals. Some individuals can simply avoid the subject of their fear and suffer relatively mild anxiety over that fear. Others suffer full-fledged panic attacks with all the associated disabling symptoms. Most individuals understand that they are suffering from an irrational fear, but they are powerless to override their initial panic reaction.

Specific phobias

As briefly mentioned above, a specific phobia is a marked and persistent fear of an object or situation which brings about an excessive or unreasonable fear when in the presence of, or anticipating, a specific object; furthermore, the specific phobias may also include concerns with losing control, panicking, and fainting which is the direct result of an encounter with the phobia.

The important distinction from social phobias are specific phobias are defined in regards to objects or situations whereas social phobias emphasizes more on social fear and the evaluations that might accompany them.

Social phobia

The key difference between specific phobias and social phobias is social phobias include fear of public situations and scrutiny which leads to embarrassment or humiliation in the diagnostic criteria.

A marked and persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others. The individual fears that he or she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be humiliating or embarrassing.Note: In children there must be evidence of the capacity for age-appropriate social relationships with familiar people and the anxiety must occur in peer settings, not just in interactions with adults.

Exposure to the feared social situation almost invariably provokes anxiety, which may take the form of a situationally bound or situationally predisposed Panic Attack. Note: In children the anxiety may be expressed by crying, tantrums, freezing, or shrinking from social situations with unfamiliar people.

Treatments

Various methods are claimed to treat phobias. Their proposed benefits may vary from person to person. Some therapists use virtual reality or imagery exercise to desensitize patients to the feared entity. These are parts of systematic desensitization therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be beneficial. Cognitive behavioral therapy allows the patient to challenge dysfunctional thoughts or beliefs by being mindful of their own feelings with the aim that the patient will realize their fear is irrational. CBT may be conducted in a group setting. Gradual desensitisation treatment and CBT are often successful, provided the patient is willing to endure some discomfort. In one clinical trial, 90% of patients were observed with no longer having a phobic reaction after successful CBT treatment.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) has been demonstrated in peer-reviewed clinical trials to be effective in treating some phobias. Mainly used to treat Post-traumatic stress disorder, EMDR has been demonstrated as effective in easing phobia symptoms following a specific trauma, such as a fear of dogs following a dog bite. Hypnotherapy coupled with Neuro-linguistic programming can also be used to help remove the associations that trigger a phobic reaction. However, lack of research and scientific testing compromises its status as an effective treatment.

Antidepressant medications such SSRIs, MAOIs may be helpful in some cases of phobia. Benzodiazepines may be useful in acute treatment of severe symptoms but the risk benefit ratio is against their long-term use in phobic disorders. There are also new pharmacological approaches, which target learning and memory processes that occur during psychotherapy. For example, it has been shown that glucocorticoids can enhance extinction-based psychotherapy. Emotional Freedom Technique, a psychotherapeutic alternative medicine tool, also considered to be pseudoscience by the mainstream medicine, is allegedly useful.[citation needed]. Another method psychologists and psychiatrists use to treat patients with extreme phobias is prolonged exposure. Prolonged exposure is used in psychotherapy when the person with the phobia is exposed to the object of their fear over a long period of time. This technique is only tested[clarification needed] when a person has overcome avoidance of or escape from the phobic object or situation. People with slight distress from their phobias usually do not need prolonged exposure to their fear.

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