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Specific phobias occur when a fear becomes unmanageable. Panic attacks are when anxiety becomes unmanageable. While a nervous stomach and a little extra sweating are common before a big event, a full-scale panic attack is crippling. Feeling a twinge at the sight of a spider or when looking down from a high building happens to many people, but being frozen at the sight or dreading the idea of the spider or the height can interfere with functioning.
Both specific phobias and panic attacks fall under the spectrum of anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders are about irrational fear and dread. Fear is a natural and helpful biological response to a threatening stimulus. Anxiety may be in response to an actual event about to occur. When the fear response is greater than the actual risk there is a problem.
What Is a Phobia?
A phobia is fear of something real, but the danger is grossly exaggerated, or there may be no danger whatsoever. For instance, pogonophobia is the fear of beards. A person with a severe case of this phobia might run out of the room if they see someone with a beard. Obviously the beard is not a threat and it is unlikely the person wearing the beard is a threat. The phobia can take over the victim, causing them physical symptoms such as rapid heart beat and trembling, but it can also immobilize the person so they can not act in a productive way.
People with a specific phobia often have a close relative with a similar problem. It’s not clear if they have a biological propensity to it, or they learned the phobia from observing the behavior of their relative.
A mild phobia may not hinder functioning. A significant phobia can be helped by exposure therapy (previously known as progressive deconditioning). For instance, say the sufferer is afraid of snakes. First they are shown a bad drawing of a snake and in a supportive environment are asked to touch the drawing. Then the same happens with a photograph. The next step is a snake safely locked away in a cage. Then a snake held by a person at a distance. The person moves the snake closer and closer until the sufferer can touch the snake. This process could take days or even months.
5 common phobias:
- Acrophobia – fear of heights
- Agoraphobia – fear of crowds
- Aracnophobia – fear of spiders
- Cynophobia – fear of dogs
- Mysophobia – fear of germs
What Is a Panic Attack?
Panic attacks come on suddenly or may be the result of a building fear that explodes. Panic attacks can feel like a heart attack, or can cause feelings of impending death. Because the experience is so intense, after a few panic attacks, the sufferer might have great anxiety about the possibility of another attack. That in itself can become a disorder, called panic disorder.
While panic attacks, again, can affect anyone on rare occasion, those who suffer from it regularly may have some biological anomaly. One researcher found an abnormality in the 15th chromosome of those with panic attacks. Another study found differences in the locus ceruleus, an area of the brain. There is also some genetic correlation, many sufferers have a parent that had the same problem.
The debate rages whether panic attacks have biological or psychological origins. In all likelihood they are a combination of both. Like many disorders, a person may have a propensity toward this type of problem, and then a single or set of events caused the disorder to take hold.
It’s not unusual for a healthy person to experience a panic attack over the course of their lifetime, especially at times of extreme stress. If panic attacks occur more than infrequently it is something to look into with a professional.
Specific phobias and panic attacks can share many of the same symptoms. Both may present with rapid breathing and heart rates, trembling, stomach discomfort and more. As stated, panic attacks can lead to a phobia of the panic attacks. And phobias can cause anxiety that could make a panic attack more likely. Both may have a genetic link. Severe cases of either might be treated with antidepressants or central nervous system depressants. Phobias have a specific focus, panic attacks may not.