Though many people experience fear or discomfort in the presence of various things in their lives, such as growling dogs or looking down from a 30th floor balcony, these fears usually do not cause undue distress outside of these situations, nor do they interfere with daily functioning. Those coping with specific phobias, however, experience intense anxiety in anticipation of encountering particular situations, places, or objects; this anxiety is out of proportion to the actual threat, yet people will take extreme measures to avoid the feared circumstance altogether. Adults with specific phobias are usually aware that their fear is irrational, but their anxiety is so powerful that no amount of reassurance or facts about the unlikelihood of the danger diminishes their fear response.
Symptoms of phobias include distressing thoughts and feelings of anxiety, fear, panic, shame, powerlessness, and embarrassment, as well as physical symptoms including a racing heart, trembling, sweating, shortness of breath, upset stomach, and digestive issues. Specific phobias can be focused on nearly anything, but common objects or situations include:
- Animals such as dogs (cynophobia) and snakes (ophidiophobia)
- Insects, particularly spiders (arachnophobia)
- Heights (acrophobia)
- Germs and dirt (mysophobia)
- Flying (aerophobia)
- Thunderstorms (astraphobia)
- Injections (trypanophobia)
- Fear of being in open or crowded spaces where escaping may be difficult, which often results in avoidance of social activities and driving (agoraphobia)
Phobias often develop in childhood, but can also begin during adolescence and adulthood. They can develop following a traumatic event (i.e. being in a car accident) or by observing the anxious response of another person (i.e. a child observing a parent’s fear of mice). The onset of specific phobias is usually sudden, and research suggests that the propensity to develop them can run in families. The difference between childhood fears and phobias is that childhood fears tend to decrease with age, whereas phobias will become more intense and rarely will go away without proper treatment.
Specific phobias can be debilitating and distressing, but they are readily treatable with the appropriate interventions. Some doctors may prescribe anti-anxiety medications, but for long-term improvement, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is the preferred treatment for most people. CBT works to change the thoughts and behaviours that support the phobia, and will often incorporate gradual exposure, utilizing mental, virtual and eventually real exposure to progressively habituate the mind and body to the feared object or situation. Paired with relaxation exercises to re-train the nervous system to recalibrate the fight-or-flight response, CBT with a qualified clinician has an extremely high success rate at helping people to overcome phobias and regain control of their lives.
By: Zoë Laksman, Psy.D, C.Psych and Laura Clarridge, Ph.D.
Zoë Laksman has practiced as a Registered Clinical Psychologist at The Clinic on Dupont since 2007. Laura Clarridge is a certified executive coach who helps her clients find fulfilling educational and career pathways. Their backgrounds and training have shaped their interest in promoting improved psychological health, interpersonal functioning and wellness. They work together as a clinical team and as the developers of The Clinic on Dupont’s online presence.