When was the last time you felt an overwhelming sense of fear? You may have felt your breath get shallow, your heart rate quicken, or even experienced dizziness or chest pain.
We all experience fear and/or panic sometimes. Those feelings can even be useful, alerting us to approaching threats or keeping us from making risky decisions.
But what happens when we continually feel afraid, even when we logically know we are safe? When that fear centers around a particular object or situation, it is sometimes classified as a phobia.
What is a Phobia?
A phobia is an intense, irrational fear of something that poses little or no threat to an individual’s well being. At least 12.5% of adults experience phobias at some point in their lives.
Phobias vary from person to person, and can develop at any age. Sometimes they are brought on by distressing events, such as near-drowning or exposure to animal bites. Phobias have also been connected to traumatic brain injuries and other forms of anxiety.
Here are just a few of the most common specific phobias in the US:
- Claustrophobia (fear of being in small spaces)
- Aerophobia (fear of flying)
- Arachnophobia (fear of spiders)
- Driving phobia
- Acrophobia (fear of heights)
- Hypochondria (fear of becoming ill)
No matter what they center around, phobias can inhibit us from leading our best lives. Some people avoid the source of their phobias, so as not to experience the intense feelings they cause. For example, some people don’t travel due to fear of flying (aerophobia), while others may avoid public places so they don’t have to be in groups of people (enochlophobia). In addition, some people may turn to drugs, alcohol or other outlets to numb the uncomfortable feelings the phobia generates.
The good news is that we can learn to cope with and/or relieve ourselves of phobias in other ways.
Three commonly used treatments are exposure therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
Exposure therapy involves gradually exposing yourself to the object of your fear in order to change your response. This doesn’t mean, for example, holding a spider if you have arachnophobia. Rather, you may first think about a spider. Once you’re able to tolerate that, you may then be invited to look at a picture of a spider. Next, you may look at a spider in a cage from a distance. While this type of treatment involves a degree of getting outside of your comfort zone, a good therapist will never ask you to do something that you do not feel ready for.
CBT combines exposure therapy with cognitive and behavioral conditioning to help alter your perspective on and experience of the phobia. You might, for example, examine the fears that underlie the phobia, and consider if there are alternative ways to feel about it. CBT helps you master your thoughts rather than the other way around.
EMDR has also been used in conjunction with phobias, as it allows you to target the area of the brain stimulated by the fear and change its response. Some people prefer it because it can produce results faster than the exposure therapy and CBT.
Other Healing Tips
Acknowledge Your Phobia
We all have things that make us nervous or fearful. Some of us may experience these fear more intensely than others, and that’s okay.
It’s a cliche, but it’s true: the first step on the healing journey is acknowledging the thing you want to change. Once you’ve verbalized it to yourself, a therapist, a close friend, or another trusted person, it will be easier to tackle.
Ask for support
Overcoming our fears does not have to be a lonely process.
Once we acknowledge and share our fears with trusted individuals, it’s important to communicate different types of support we might need. For example, let’s say you’re uncomfortable in crowds. You may communicate this to a trusted friend, and ask them to stay by your side in certain social situations. Maybe you’ll disclose that you’d rather not meet them in busy bars or at parties, but in quieter places for one-on-one hangouts.
It may be as simple as saying, “Hey, I’m going to be exposed to X today and that makes me really anxious. It would really help me if I knew I could text you if things feel overwhelming.” Or, “Please know if I seem a little short-tempered today, it’s because I’m dealing with Y.” These simple communications can help you feel seen, let your loved one in on what’s happening, and even increase the intimacy of your bond.
Talk with your doctor.
Many people don’t talk about phobias with their doctor because they might feel that it’s not medically relevant. However, your doctor may be able to refer you to programs or professionals that can help you overcome your phobia. They may also be able to prescribe medications to alleviate some of the symptoms, or make medical accommodations if your phobia is related to medical treatment.
The Mayo Clinic has some great tips on how to prepare for your doctor’s visit, including questions to ask and what to expect.
Know You Are Not Alone
Phobias are relatively common and many of us encounter them as some point in our lives. They can make us feel self-conscious or weird, but really they’re reminders that we are just remarkably human.
If you have any questions about phobias, forms of treatment, or fear in general, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We have experience helping people address their phobias, as well as other mental health conditions.
Erin Ross, MS OTR/L is an occupational therapist and an aspiring science writer in DC. She believes in evidence-based practice, clear communication in healthcare, and diligent inclusion of the Oxford comma.