A phobia is a psychiatric disorder in which the patient suffers a lasting, irrational fear precipitated by a harmless object or situation. A patient with a phobia experiences intense anxiety upon exposure to the trigger and may experience anticipatory anxiety as well. Patients with phobias may be aware that their fear is irrational, but may nonetheless find it overwhelming or even disabling. Phobias which develop in childhood, such as a fear of bees or of thunder, are frequently outgrown, while phobias that develop in adulthood may be longer lasting. Nonetheless, about one-fifth of all phobias resolve without treatment.

Phobias are the most common psychiatric disorder, experienced at some time by as much as 10 percent of the population, and are found with slightly greater frequency in women than in men. Patients may be troubled by more than one phobia.

Symptoms of Phobias

Patients with phobias experience extreme anxiety or even terror upon exposure to trigger object or situation. Fear may even develop when the trigger is discussed or observed as a two-dimensional image. The emotional and physical symptoms adult patients with phobias experience when confronted with the objects or situations they fear are similar to those experienced during anxiety or panic attacks. The difference is that, in the case of patients with phobias, the precipitating factor is constant and known.

Symptoms of phobias include:

  • Feelings of horror or dread
  • Desire to escape
  • Sweating, chills, tachycardia
  • Shortness of breath or chest pain
  • Gastrointestinal distress
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Inability to function normally

Children with phobias may express their fear differently than adults, either by crying, clinging to adults, or having tantrums.

Common Types of Phobias

It is possible to have a phobia based on anything, but some of the more common ones include:

  • Animal phobias, such as fear of dogs, spiders, snakes, birds, cats or rodents
  • Situational phobias, such as fear of closed in spaces (claustrophobia)
  • Fear of activities, such as flying or entering a tunnel
  • Fear of social interactions or public speaking
  • Fear of natural phenomena, such as storms, earthquakes or floods
  • Fear of bodily invasion by injections, dental work or surgery
  • Specific idiosyncratic fears, such as fear of clowns, nuns, or computers

Treatment of Phobias

Whether a particular phobia requires treatment depends on how severe the problem is and whether it interferes with the patient's everyday life. Many people have phobias that rarely bother them and therefore never have to be treated. Sometimes a particular fear, such as a fear of flying, is not troublesome until the patient is suddenly expected to travel extensively to meet the requirements of a new job and the phobia becomes crippling.

Whenever a phobia intrudes on daily life, employment or relationships, it should be therapeutically addressed. Certain medications, usually tranquilizers and antidepressants, can be helpful in addressing the terrible anxiety patients with phobias experience. There are also several types of psychotherapy that have been found to assist in overcoming phobias. These include: cognitive behavioral therapy, desensitization, flooding, graded exposure and biofeedback. Support groups are also often helpful.

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