What is a phobia?

A phobia is medically classified as a type of anxiety disorder that causes an individual to experience extreme, irrational fear of or aversion to an object, situation, living creature or place.

How common are phobias?

The NHS suggests that phobias are the most common type of anxiety disorder, estimating that around 10 million people in the UK have a phobia.

Simple Phobias

Simple phobias sometimes referred to as ‘specific’ phobias, produce intense fear of an object or situation that is, in reality, completely or relatively safe. The phobic response is a reaction triggered by a single stimulus.   Examples include:

  • Acrophobia – fear of heights
  • Arachnophobia – fear of spiders
  • Aquaphobia – fear of water 
  • Ophidiophobia – fear of snakes 
  • Claustrophobia – fear of enclosed spaces

Complex Phobias

Complex phobias are generally more challenging. They tend to include more triggers, as well as adaptive behaviours to cope with a phobia. Examples include:

  • Emetophobia – Emetophobia is a fear of vomiting, which can manifest as avoidance of anything that could potentially lead to a sickness bug or vomit, including hospitals, schools, workplaces, restaurants or pubs, and certain foods such as chicken or fish. This phobia can also create an obsessive-compulsive disorder involving washing and cleaning and can lead to agoraphobia.
  • Social Anxiety – Social anxiety is a fear of being judged negatively by other people. People with Social Anxiety experience feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, self-consciousness, embarrassment and humiliation, which can lead to self-harm, depression or loneliness, and agoraphobia.
  • Agoraphobia – agoraphobia usually develops from another fear or phobia that creates a belief that only the home is a safe zone, as the environment and events within the home can be relatively controlled. Agoraphobia can also be a consequence of post-traumatic stress disorder, where the outside world feels like a threat following significant trauma.

How phobias are created

Phobias can be debilitating, crippling, embarrassing and distressing. However, the good news is that no one is born with a phobia. You will no doubt have observed children’s wonderfully animated and dramatic interpretations of everyday situations. If you ask a child to tell you about an event they found funny, often they giggle so much that they can barely get the words out. Equally, if you ask them to tell you about something scary they will describe it in the most exaggerated way possible. This high-stakes view of the world is what allows children to immerse themselves in magical fantasies, but a child’s perspective on an experience is also often the culprit when anxiety and phobias are created. 

There are two ways of acquiring a phobia:

  1. Copying behaviour e.g. witnessing a parent screaming at a spider. This is traumatic for a child. To children, grown-ups are protectors who teach them how to survive. To see their parents fearful of a spider creates a schema linking the fight or flight response to the spider.
  2. Experiencing a trauma. Seeing, hearing or feeling something frightening causes a heightened state of negative emotion, and stimulates the protection mechanism. There is no time to calmly evaluate the situation; a memory of what occurred is often distorted. 

Overcoming a phobia

The great news is that whatever your phobia is, you can overcome it. It is vital to address and alter your perception of the events that created your phobia. Start by asking yourself is the thing you are phobic of has actually done anything to you. Did it target you? Did it create a master plan specifically to traumatise you?

Once you change your perception of the thing in question, you will change how you feel. For example, if a dog wants a bit to you, then the dog must’ve been scared; or perhaps the owner beat the dog and made it a nervous animal. Either way, the dog is not to blame. Even if you still struggle not to blame the dog the bit you, there is no reason to blame all dogs. 

Here are some more examples of how you could alter your perception of something you are phobic of. Try applying these approaches to whatever it is you fear:

  • If you were stuck in a broken elevator, then consider that because you’ve got out, you are not trapped, just inconvenienced. 
  • If you saw your mother scream at a spider, it was your mother that scared you. The spider did nothing. 
  • If you saw someone vomit because they overindulged in alcohol, it was their fault for drinking too much, not vomits fault. Also consider being grateful to vomiting, as it stops people from being poisoned and therefore saves lives. 
  • If you once had a bad experience with the dentist, don’t blame all dentists; just don’t return to the one that upset you. That would be like going to a hairdresser, not being happy with a haircut, and then never getting your haircut again as you blame all hairdressers. 

If you can vindicate the thing you are phobic of, and find evidence to positively support it, you can overcome your fear.

Living with a phobia can be extremely challenging, however, you are not alone. Here at Trauma Research UK, our belief is, ‘it’s not what’s wrong with you, it’s what happened to you’. With this philosophy, we believe that everyone can successfully overcome their mental health issues if given the right help and support. Read more…