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Phobias are excessive and unrealistic fears of specific, concrete objects or situations that by themselves may pose only a minor threat. In some cases, the object or situation may have posed a threat in the course of human history, or it may pose no threat at all. The level of distress upon exposure to the feared object/situation may reach that of a classic panic attack, with racing heartbeat, sweating, shortness of breath, bowel dysfunction, feeling of freezing or fleeing, and nausea. Because the object of fear causes such extreme and persistent anxiety, individuals will often avoid their feared object/situation at all costs. Unfortunately, this avoidance can have a significant impact on the individual’s daily functioning in school, work or social life.
- Specific phobia occurs in approximately 11 percent of the general population of adults and children, but many more people report fears that do not meet the medical criteria for specific phobias. Fears that have a reasonable basis, such as fear of walking in a high crime area, are not considered phobic.
- Children frequently express many fears, but they are not deemed phobic unless their fears prevent them from carrying on a normal life. While many children outgrow their childhood fears, phobic fears generally remain with the individual throughout life, unless treatment is sought.
- Phobias can develop at any time in life after a traumatic event, such as being choked or an animal attack.
- Observing and hearing others express extreme fear about a situation, or repeated messaging from family members or the media about the dangers of certain situations, can also lead to the formation of phobic fears.
- Phobic fears are often accompanied by distorted or unrealistic thoughts, which make it difficult for the individual to reason his or her way through the extreme terror they experience.
5 Types of Specific Phobias
Animals and insects: This represents the most common phobia and includes bees, spiders, snakes, mice, cats, and dogs. It usually develops in childhood, between the ages of four and ten. These phobias tend to ameliorate over the adult life span, even without treatment.
Natural environments: This category includes anything that can be found in the natural world, including thunder, darkness, rain, wind, stars, deep water, and heights. These fears usually have childhood onset.
Blood, disease, injections: While most individuals would rather not see blood, those with this phobia will have an inordinate, excessive reaction to seeing blood, having blood drawn, or having stitches. The same distress may be caused by needles, injury, pain, or contamination. These phobias may delay or prohibit individuals from seeking needed medical treatment, leading to a negative impact on their health. This specific phobia seems to run in families and may have both learned and biological components. Approximately 80 percent of individuals who experience this phobia will faint upon exposure to blood and injury. However, fainting upon the sight of blood and injury occurs among many people, and by itself does not warrant a diagnosis of phobia. Only those who have an extreme reaction that impacts their daily living and their health meet the standards for phobia.
Situational: Situational phobias include the fear of enclosed places (claustrophobia) such as elevators, tunnels, and airplanes, travel, bridges and empty rooms. There may be fears of flying or driving. This phobia usually starts in childhood to the mid-twenties, and it may share many characteristics of a panic disorder with agoraphobia.
Other: This category represents a catch-all classification for phobias that do not fit the previous four. For example: a child’s extreme fear of clowns or costumed characters.
It is important to note that individuals with specific phobias usually know that their fears are exaggerated. They may feel shame because of their fears, yet without treatment they are unable to move beyond them.