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:

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 as no one is born with a phobia, they can be completely overcome.

You will have no doubt 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. 

All phobias feel like they get worst with time, this is because you are adding layers throughout your life.  Imagine a muscle in your arm. The more you exercise it, the bigger it gets. We can use the same analogy with phobias, every time you think about the thing you fear, or every time you are triggered in some way, you are exercising that phobic muscle. Therefore the fear ‘seems’ to be getting worse because you are already hypersensitive.

There are two ways of acquiring a phobia:

  1. Copying behaviour e.g. witnessing a parent screaming at a spider. This scene would be traumatic for a child as grown-ups are our protectors who teach us everything we know. To see a parent fearful of something creates a schema linking the fight or flight response and therefore believing their fear is valid.

    A child looks to a parent for guidance so depending on how a parent reacts to an event or a situation can make all the difference with how the child reacts. 

  2. Experiencing a trauma. Seeing, hearing or feeling something frightening causes a heightened state of negative emotion, and stimulates the protection fight or flight response. In that moment of trauma, there is no time to calmly evaluate the situation. So your brain will automatically want to protect you from experiencing the same emotions ever again.  

Overcoming a phobia

The great news is that whatever your phobia is, you can overcome it. To do this you will need to address and alter the way you interpreted the events that created your phobia. Once you change your perception, you will start to change how you feel.  

If you can vindicate the thing you are phobic of, and find evidence to positively support it, you can, like many others, 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 phobia if given the right help and support. Read more…