A phobia should not be confused with a simple fear, such as being afraid of a tiger. The latter is a normal and evolutionary response, where we know life is actually threatened by the object, i.e the tiger. Fear is only classed as a phobia if a person becomes highly anxious (e.g sweating, fainting, panic, hyper-ventilating) when confronted with the object of his or her phobia and/or when s/he begins to organise life around avoiding the thing s/he is scared of.
- Insects and spiders
- Social phobia (fear of other people)
- Agoraphobia (fear of open spaces)
Whilst the above are the most common, an individual can have a fear about virtually anything, from buttons or umbrellas, to veins or darkness.
Phobias are learned responses, usually emerging in response to an unpleasant experience or set of experiences. Thus for example, many people discover in therapy that their lifelong fear of spiders or dogs began in early childhood as a result of an encounter that wasn’t resolved well. More complex phobias such as social anxiety or claustrophobia tend to crop up a little later, often in adolescence or adulthood, in response to the challenges that newly emerging self-image, performance and achievement issues pose at that time. However, it should be noted that phobias can and do manifest themselves for the first time at any age.
The treatment of choice within the world of psychological therapy is CBT, or cognitive behavioural therapy. This is an approach which explores the shape, range, and pattern of the phobia, before going to research the chief influences in the sufferer’s life which may have contributed to its manifestation.
Armed with this information, the therapist and sufferer can then go on to build a picture of the connections, beliefs and assumptions the sufferer has which cause him to become distressed when confronted with the object of his phobia. Over time, the therapist will work to help the sufferer build more healthy assumptions, at the same time as allowing him to experience a world in which his worst fears in relation to the phobia fail to be realised (e.g, nothing bad happens if he is in the same room as a mouse).