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Specific Phobia


Phobia can be simply put as irrational and extreme or excessive fear of any particular object or situation. The word phobia is derived from the name of the Greek God Phobos, who was known to frighten his enemies. Many of us are afraid of various things we might encounter for example, reptiles, heights or else. However, phobias of these or other things in general is said to occur when there is no objective danger and also it is accompanied by sufficient anguish to disrupt one’s life. When the fear is so severe that a person has problems in his social and occupational functioning, then a phobia is said to be existent. Usually, though a phobic realizes that his or her fear is baseless, they prefer to avoid the situation or object which is feared.

It may also be possible that not always does an individual realize his or her own phobias or seek treatment for it. For example, a person with an intense fear of snakes’ lives in a metropolitan city may have little direct encounter with the feared object. Therefore they may not believe that anything is seriously wrong.

Since the disorder has been recognized, various terms have been formulated for these unjustifiable avoidance patterns. In each instance, the suffix phobia is preceded by a Greek word for the feared object. Some of them are claustrophobia (fear of closed spaces), acrophobia (fear of heights), agrophobia (fear of public places), taphephobia (fear of being buried alive), musophobia (fear of mice), etc.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of phobia: specific phobias and social phobias. Specific phobias are caused due to the anticipation or presence of a specific object or situation. These are technically subdivided according to the source of fear: blood, injuries and injections, situations (e.g., elevators, planes), animals and the natural environment (e.g., water, elevated places). However, the fear can also be cross – culturally different. A classic example of this is that, in China, Paleng is a fear of the cold in which the person worries that loss of body heat may be life threatening. This appears to be related to the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang; yin refers to the cold, windy, energy-sapping aspects of life.

A social phobia is fear linked to social situations: presence of other people, being in a social gathering or the likes. It is one of the most disturbing kinds of phobias, as suicide rates among people with this disorder are substantially high. People with this disorder usually avoid situations and places wherein others are involved. For example, using a public toilet, eating in public, performing in public etc. Fear may be manifested in the form of excessive sweating, blushing, getting anxious and might even turn into a full blown panic attack. People with this disorder usually end up in professions far below their intellectual capacity because their social fear leads them to be extremely sensitive to presence of others. Social phobias begin during adolescence and interfere with interaction and formal healthy relationships with peers.

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The causes of phobias are explained in varied ways. The very famous Sigmund Freud explained phobias as having a symbolic connection. According to him, we repress certain unmoral desires as they created great anxiety within an individual. This anxiety is then said to be displaced from the feared unmoral, unsocial desire to an object or situation. Another theory talks about how as a young child one was innocent and trusted everyone around them. However, the child slowly realizes that not everyone is to be trusted and relied upon. They could not live with this mistrust and fear of others and thus displaced their fears onto objects. Ultimately, however, there is very little support of this kind of cause.

It is also true that we can learn a fear through imitating or observing others. For example, if we observe someone getting an electric shock quite a number of times, we may start fearing the electric instruments in general despite of many being properly insulated or totally harmless. Also, children can acquire phobias through verbal instructions from their parents. Apparent might repeatedly warn his or her child not to engage in some activity lest dire consequences follow. Also, there seems to exist a genetic link to the occurrence of phobia. For example, blood and injection phobia is strongly familial.

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Signs & Symptoms

The main symptom of any phobia is showing intense fear for a particular object or situation. The person will try all means to avoid that object or situation. When faced with such a situation, he may experience anxiety, increased heart beat, sweating and other such signs of fear. If he has a specific phobia, the person will stay away from the object or thing that arouses his fear, for instance, if he is scared of snakes, he might avoid going to zoos or camping. If a person has a social phobia, for instance, a fear of eating in public, he will not go out for social gatherings, thus becoming home bound.

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Drug Administration Modern Medicine

Drugs that reduce anxiety involve sedatives, tranquilizers or anxiolytics. Barbiturates were earlier used to reduce anxiety in phobias; however, these are highly addictive and pose risk of lethal overdose. This was replaced by two categories of drugs, propanediols (e.g., Miltown) and benzodiazepines (e.g., Valium and Xanax). The risk of lethal overdose is not great with these drugs, benzodiazepines prove to be addictive and produce great withdrawal symptoms. Also, recently certain anti-depressants have proved effective in treating phobias. One class of these is the monoamine oxidase inhibitors, which proved to be equally effective to therapy at a twelve week follow up. But, these inhibitors such as Nardil can lead to weight gain, sexual dysfunction, insomnia and hypertension. However, the problem with using drugs as treatment is that they may be difficult to continue and relapse is common if patients stop taking the medication.

Systematic Desensitization Psychotherapy

Although there are a number of treatments for phobias, an individual rarely seeks treatment for it. An individual though fearful of some object does not think he has a problem unless there is regular confrontation with the feared stimulus. Many therapists look at confrontation with the feared object as a way of tackling the phobia. This method involves systematic desensitization. In which the patient thinks about the feared stimulus and then consequently learns to relax his or her body. This state of deep relaxation coupled with thinking about a series of frightening events proves beneficial in eliminating or to the least reducing the phobia. Also, fearful clients are exposed to live demonstrations about others interacting fearless with feared objects. For example, handling non poisonous snakes fearlessly or petting friendly dogs. This observation might be helpful for the patient in confronting his or her own phobias.

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