What are Specific Phobias?

by Dave Carbonell, PhD

Specific Phobias are patterns of excessive fear of ordinary objects, situations, and activities. While some phobias are caused by traumatic events, most arise in the ordinary course of life without apparent cause, and probably reflect a genetic predisposition. Phobias are very treatable with a treatment method called "Exposure". This method helps you train your brain to have a different response when you encounter the feared object or situation.

Almost any object, location, or activity can become the focus of a phobia, although certain ones are far more common than others. Common examples include: fear of dogs; fear of driving; claustrophobia (fear of confinement in small places); fear of doctors; fear of flying; nervous sweating; emetophobia (fear of vomiting); blood phobia; fear of public speaking; snake phobia; fear of heights, and many more.

Types of Specific Phobias

There are five general types of specific phobias.

Situational: typically of enclosed spaces such as airplanes and elevators

Natural Environment: heights, water, storms, etc.

Blood-Injury-Injection Phobia: a fear of seeing blood, often accompanied by a fear of fainting

Animal: snakes, spiders, dogs, any animal can be the object of a phobia.

Other: includes fear of choking, vomiting, and getting ill, among others.

Phobias are considered to be the most common of the anxiety disorders, affecting more than 13% of the population of the United States.

How Phobias Work

The most disabling part of a phobia isn't actually the fear. It's the efforts people make to oppose and control their fears. Not only do these efforts require you to give up ordinary activities that you might otherwise enjoy, they also fail to remove the fear from your life. Instead, they generally maintain it.

How much trouble you have often depends on what you fear, and where you live. You probably won't have much trouble with a fear of elevators if you live in a rural area. You probably wouldn't have much trouble with a fear of snakes here in Chicago, unless your significant other wanted to take you camping.

Insects, dogs, and birds, on the other hand, are so common that people with these fears often find their lives become restricted no matter where they live. These fears can really limit your enjoyment of the summer months. I've known people with such a strong fear of dogs that they (and their families) could only take a vacation at a gated resort, where they were assured there would be no dogs. People with a fear of flying, or a fear of driving, often find their lives are quite limited by the limits on their transportation choices.

While these avoidances may temporarily avert an experience of intense fear, they tend to preserve the fear over time. So the more a person avoids, the more firmly phobic they become. This is how anxiety tricks you.

Are Specific Phobias Treatable?
Very much so!

Phobias are usually very treatable without medications or long psychotherapy. With exposure therapy, a person is helped to spend time with the feared object in order to retrain his brain to accept it. Properly done, this is a very successful, and surprisingly brief, method of overcoming a phobia.

If you are looking for professional help with a phobia in the Chicago area, you can contact Dr. Carbonell for this kind of behavioral treatment. If you are looking for professional help elsewhere in the U.S., click here for some resources to help in your search.

Here's more information about Specific Phobias.

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Last updated on June 25, 2024