Psychologists use the term phobia, which comes from the Ancient Greek word for fear (φόβος, fovos), for a number of psychological conditions that can seriously disable their carriers.
Phobias are the most common form of anxiety disorder. An American study by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) found that between 5.1 and 21.5 percent of Americans suffer from phobias. Broken down by age and gender, the study found that phobias were the most common psychiatric illness among women in all age groups and the second most common illness among men older than 25.
Most psychologists divide phobias into three categories:
social phobias - fears to do with other people and social relationships such as performance anxiety, fears of eating in public etc.
specific phobias - fear of a single specific panic trigger, like dogs, flying, running water and so on.
agoraphobia - a generalised fear of leaving your home or your small familiar 'safe' area, and of the inevitable panic attacks that will follow. Agoraphobia is the only phobia regularly treated as a medical condition.
Many specific phobias, such as fears of dogs, heights, spider bites, and so forth, are extensions of fears that everyone has. People with these phobias treat them by avoiding the thing they fear.
Many specific phobias can be traced back to a specific triggering event, usually a traumatic experience at an early age. Social phobias and agoraphobia have more complex causes that are not entirely known at this time. It is believed that heredity, genetics and brain-chemistry combine with life-experiences to play a major role in the development of anxiety disorders and phobias.
Phobias vary in severity among individuals, with some phobics simply disliking or avoiding the subject of their fear and suffering mild anxiety. Others suffer fully-fledged panic attacks with all the associated disabling symptoms.
The name of a phobia generally contains a Greek word for what the patient fears plus -phobia. Creating these terms is something of a word game. Few of these terms are found in medical literature. It is possible for a sufferer to become phobic about virtually anything.
Common phobias include:
- Arachnophobia - Fear of spiders.
- Anthrophobia - Fear of people or society
- Aerophobia - Fear of drafts, air swallowing or airborne noxious substances.
- Agoraphobia - Fear of the outdoors, crowds or uncontrolled social conditions.
- Claustrophobia - Fear of confined spaces.
- Acrophobia - Fear of heights.
- Cancerophobia - Fear of cancer.
- Astraphobia - Fear of thunder and lightning.
- Necrophobia - Fear of death or dead things.
- Cardiophobia - Fear of heart disease.
- Dental phobia - Fear of dentists, dental surgery, or teeth.
Some therapists use virtual reality to desensitize patients to the feared thing. Other forms of therapy that may be of benefit to phobics are graduated exposure therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Anti-anxiety medication can also be of assistance in some cases. Most phobics understand that they are suffering from an irrational fear, but are powerless to override their initial panic reaction.
Graduated Exposure and CBT both work towards the goal of desensitising the sufferer, and changing the thought patterns that are contributing to their panic. Gradual desensitisation treatment and CBT are often extremely successful, provided the phobic is willing to endure some discomfort and to make a continuous effort over a long period of time. Practitioners of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) claim to have a procedure that can be used to alleviate most specific phobias in a single therapeutic session, though this has not yet been verified scientifically.
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