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Relax, it's just a phobia!

© Laura Lewis (CC BY 2.0)
Aah! A mouse! Yuck! A spider. Brr! I have to make a speech in front of many people. Every one of us is afraid of something. However – according to statistical data – almost every tenth of us experiences phobia. How can you cope with it?

It is very easy to make a distinction between normal fear and phobia. The former does not hamper our everyday functioning. The fact that you do not like mice and scream in fear whenever you see one does not mean that you suffer from musophobia, i.e. panic fear of mice. If, however, you refuse to go to your own cellar and are afraid to look under the bathtub for fear of seeing a rodent, and the mere thought of mice makes you nauseous – it is probable that your fear has developed into a phobia.


Big and small fears
Phobia is an irrational fear. According to psychiatrists this is the defining characteristic of phobias – they are unreasonable. So far, scientists identified 700 different phobias (a list of phobias in English is available at phobialist.com website). Some of them may seem quite silly, e.g. gamophobia (fear of marriage), limnophobia (fear of lakes) or dipsophobia (persons affected by it are terribly afraid of drinking alcohol).

For this reason the doctors do not treat every kind of phobia equally. Some of them do not make life much more complicated (a person suffering from limnophobia should simply never visit Masuria), while some of them make normal functioning virtually impossible. This is the case for one of the most common phobias: agoraphobia, i.e. fear of open spaces and crowded places. People affected by it sometimes do not leave their houses for years.


Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Psychologists divide phobias into four basic categories: agoraphobia, animal phobias, specific phobias and social phobias. The first one is sometimes referred to as ... the homebound housewife syndrome. Feminists would probably not find this definition amusing, but the truth is that men significantly more seldom suffer from irrational fear of public transport, crowded streets or shopping malls. This fear is such great that the agoraphobe feels safe only in his own house and therefore does not like leaving it. A person suffering from animal phobias (we are most often afraid of dogs, snakes and spiders) is not only unable to be in the same room with the dreaded creature, but cannot even watch pictures of it either, not to mention touching such photos.


Specific phobias constitute the largest group and include some common fears such as the fear of flying, the fear of thunder and lightening, the fear of disease, the fear of injury, the fear of blood, a fear of heights and the fear of small spaces. Social phobias make up a separate group, distinct from other groups; people suffering from them are not afraid of specific situations, but they are rather afraid of their own behaviours in such situations: blushing, sweating, their hands shaking.

All phobias have similar symptoms: the feeling of overwhelming panic, palpitations, dizziness, breathing problems. Patients suffering from acute phobias experience such high levels of stress in situations causing the fear that they firmly believe they are going to die from fear or at least go mad.


Overcome your phobia
How? You can do it all by yourself. There is a special self-treatment for people afflicted by panic fears. It is called habituation, which means getting used to something. Psychologists have long concluded that a fear can occur at varied intensity. The more rarely you come into contact with the thing that terrifies you, the more you are scared of it. A paradox? It only seems so. Think of it: after all you cannot be dying from fear for several hours.


Try to “remove the spell” from the thing you fear so much. Get used to it. Of course at the beginning you should take small steps: first, watch some pictures of mice (spiders, planes, lightening, depending on what you are afraid of). Then, watch films. Practice everyday. After a while you will be able to face the object of your fears. First from a distance – if you are afraid of dogs, meet you cousin in a park and watch her dog from the distance of 100 metres, then reduce the distance. If you are scared of leaving your house alone, first go out into a stairwell, next day go to a shop with a friend and after a week go there on your own. Don't let setbacks discourage you: practice makes perfect.


But doctor...
It is not always possible to overcome your fear by yourself. Self-treatment is not effective in the case of acute phobias (a person suffering from agoraphobia, who has not stepped across the threshold of their house in years), and also when what we are dealing with is not a phobia at all. It is sometimes mistaken for obsessive-compulsive disorder. The phobia of dirt is such a disorder (people suffering from this phobia wash themselves all the time and are afraid of touching anything with their bare hands). It is a phobia only by name and cannot be eliminated through habituation. Such disorders may be effectively treated with medicines and, in some cases, surgery. Depression also sometimes has symptoms similar to those of social phobia or agoraphobia. In those cases, and also for people with severe phobias, treatment with medicines brings good results. The decision to administer drugs is always taken by the specialist physician.

Jagna Kaczanowska, psychologist

Published: Thu, 07/01/2016 - 17:05


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