What is Phobia? I know most of you would say it is an extreme fear. Whichever way you define it you already have an idea. The American Psychiatric Association explains fear as the normal response to a genuine or real danger. However, for the case of phobia, the fear is either irrational or excessive. A person may become unusually scared to a danger that is mostly imagined or unreasonably exaggerated. In simple terms, a phobia is a form of anxiety disorder. It is extreme and unfounded fear of something (or someone) that poses little or no real danger at all.
Imagine you were resting at Uhuru Park taking a nap. The clowns of Naswa Program in Citizen TV came and placed a plastic snake next to you and disappeared. Suspecting you were being robbed, you woke up and found a large snake next to you. What would have been your reaction?
Jane is a mother of two sons, Kamau and Kim. Recently, they visited their grandparents at Karatina. Jane’s parents have one large, dark-brown, and friendly dog called Rex. The dog is familiar with Jane and it usually jumps on her whenever she arrives. On this material day, Jane arrives with both her children. Rex is under the granary and sees Jane arrive with her two sons. He rushes towards them to meet Jane who he’s been used to. Kamau, her elder son is afraid of the dog as it approaches them with speed. He screams and clings to his mother. The mother does not bother because she knows the dog is harmless. Kamau clings unto her dress hoping that the dog will not come any closer.
The dog, as usual, jumps on Jane to “greet her”. Kamau, gripped by horror, is unable to hold onto his mother anymore and he falls to the ground unconscious, trembling, sweating and breathing in a strange way as if he’s gasping for air. The mother is confused and struggles to help the boy to recover. Immediately, she lifts the boy from the ground and takes him to her grandparents’ sitting room and tries to revive him. As everyone comes to her rescue, the boy opens his eyes and his breathing becomes a little regular. He can only say the word “doggie” in a horrified tone. The mother now understands the son was afraid of the dog. They make him sit and help him to relax. They then convince him that he will be secure from the dog and have Rex put in his kennel so that he does not scare the boy anymore.
Symptoms of phobia
How would you know that you have a phobia? Or let’s put it this way: How will you know that you have phobia for snakes, dogs, lizards, caterpillars and so on? Most people will experience the following:
- Feelings of panic, dread, horror and/or terror
- The fear goes beyond the normal expectations and the actual threat of danger
- The reactions are very automatic and uncontainable; they take over your thoughts
- Rapid/increased heartbeat, shortness of breath, trembling and a strong desire to escape from the anxiety causing situation
- Taking extreme measures to avoid/evade the feared object or situation
Types of phobia
There are many types of phobias and they can be classified according to different objects or situations:
- Natural environment phobias such as fear of storms, lightning, etc.
- Animal phobias, e.g. snakes, spiders, lizards, dogs, etc.
- Situational phobias, e.g. flying (in a plane, balloon, etc.), elevators (lifts, escalators), closed spaces, bridges, heights etc.
- Other phobias e.g. fear of choking, loud noises, costumes worn by people like clowns, and so on.
Some phobias and their names
Most phobias have names that have been used to designate them instead of giving them a phrase.
- Arachnophobia (Fear of spiders)
- Cynophobia (Fear of dogs)
- Hydrophobia (Fear of water)
- Aerophobia (Fear of flying)
- Acrophobia (fear of heights)
- Social phobia (fear of humiliation when doing something)
- Agoraphobia (Fear of being alone where escape is impossible)
- Claustrophobia (Fear of closed spaces)
- Haemophobia (Fear of blood)
- Chemophobia (Fear of Chemicals)
You can get more of these at http://phobialist.com/
So, what causes phobias?
Precisely, no specific cause has been found to be the main cause of phobias. There is however, a high possibility of developing a specific phobia if you have a family member(s) with a phobia. In other cases, it may be because of the following.
- Having had a bad experience like being bitten by a snake, scorpion, cat, dog, falling from a tree, etc.
- Having had a panic attack in a particular situation like being on an elevator (lift or escalator)
- Seeing a nasty experience by someone else like falling off a tree, building, a stampede, etc.
- Seeing someone else who was extremely afraid of something like settling in a plane because of fear of flying.
- Learning of something bad that happened like drowning, terrorist attack, plane crash, etc.
It is important to note that most phobias are linked to childhood experiences which were probably interpreted irrationally. Children may fear animals, natural environments, blood – injection – injury situations than teenagers or adults. Situational phobias are more common in adults according to particular experiences in their lives like terrorist attacks, accidents, plane travels, panic attacks in elevators, etc. Women have been found to often develop phobia at younger ages compared to men. If you have one type of phobia, it is more likely you may develop another phobia as well.
Can you be treated of your phobia?
Yes. Generally, a greater majority of those who have been treated of phobias have recovered at least for years, if not their entire life. The treatment usually involves what is called cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), medication or both.
In CBT, you meet a trained therapist (psychologist or psychiatrist) who confronts the feared object or situation in a process known as systematic desensitization. This process is a carefully planned, gradual way of helping a person to learn to control his/her mental and physical reactions of fear. By confronting, instead of fleeing the feared object or situation, a person gets accustomed to it and the terror, panic and dread once felt disappear.
If you become aware of a particular phobia, you can do a systematic desensitization to yourself. Let’s assume that you fear (a) elevators and (b) snakes
Step 1: Get a friend or someone close to you
Step 2: Visit a building that utilizes elevators
Step 3: (since the main aim is to overcome your fear at your pace) Make the first floor your destination and enter the lift.
Step 4: Stay close to your friend and if you feel unable to stand, hold on to the bars on the interior of the lift.
Step 5: Once you have achieved your “first floor goal” do not exceed. Let that be enough for the day and make a second trial as you go down.
Step 6: Since this fear cannot be overcome in one day, visit another day with your friend and make a “second floor goal” and back.
Step 7: Once you feel you have enough courage to face your fears, go by yourself and make a “tenth floor goal” and back.
Step 8: Make a frequent use of the lifts and you will have achieved your goal.
Step 1: Draw the picture of a snake (Do you fear when you look at it?). Talk about snakes if you can.
Step 2: Look for pictures of snakes from anywhere you can find them (Google images can give you the best)
Step 3: Look snake video clips running from seconds to minutes (YouTube can give you sufficient clips)
Step 4: Look for a snake movie or documentary (World Geographic Channel videos are excellent for this purpose.
Step 5: Visit a snake museum and see if you will be afraid of the dead snakes.
Step 6: Visit a snake park and observe live snakes (You can ask the assistants to help you if you can’t do it by yourself).
Step 7: Repeat step 6 by revisiting the park as many times as you can
NB: Killing a snake to prove your recovery from the phobia may not be allowed depending on the laws of your country.
Warning! Do not attempt if you cannot manage by yourself, consult a psychologist or a psychiatrist for help.
Medication, which is the second alternative, is used to control the panic experienced during a phobic situation, as well as the resulting anxiety due to anticipation of that very situation.
Web MD (2015). Anxiety & Panic Disorders Health Centre. Retrieved from <<http://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/tc/phobias-topic-overview>> August 2015.
American Psychiatric Association (2015). Phobias. Retrieved from <<http://www.psychiatry.org/phobias>> August 2015.
Medline Plus (2015). Phobias. Retrieved from <<https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/phobias.html>> August 2015
By Kyangu Wambua C.
The author is a Counselling Psychologist based in Nairobi