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What is a Phobia?

Phobia2-300x200A phobia is when your life is affected by fear of something. In fact the word ‘phobia’ is from the Greek word ‘phóbos meaning morbid fear.

You can develop a phobia at any time of their life.

To set off a phobia there must always be a stimulus. It may be an animal such as a dog, an inanimate object such as an elevator or escalator, open space (agoraphobia) or confined space (claustrophobia), a person or even a sound or sight of something.

The stimulus is what initiates you going into a phobic inappropriate reaction.

I say ‘inappropriate’ because the appropriate reaction to the stimulus would not be the phobic reaction. Somewhere in your past is an incident that was traumatic when you were originally exposed to the stimulus. This formed a mental association between the stimulus and the memory of the trauma.

After that time of mental association every time you are exposed to the stimulus you go into the inappropriate phobic reaction of fear with all its personalised features.

The phobic inappropriate reaction may even only happen in certain circumstances. I once had patient who was afraid of dogs only when she went out with her mother. But the mother was afraid of dogs all the time. When they were out together they entered into what is called group behaviour.

Phobia can also be the result of suggestion by other people. This phobia develops when people grow up in cultures or environments in which they are told the gay, black, Jewish people, or people with rings through their noses are wrong and evil.

If you’ve been brought up in such an environment, you may never have met such people but are afraid to do so .

There are basically three kinds of phobias.

  1. The first is an acute or extremephobia. This is when the phobia is completely disabling. You may experience extreme physical signs of fear, shaking, sweating, loss of breath going into an anxiety state, panicking and wanting to run away. You are most likely to present to the health care professions for help.Extreme phobias may mean that you are unable to go to work or carry out your normal daily duties or life. Your phobias may be so extreme that you are unable to manage without the help of other people to help you get through the day. You may even end up being classified as disabled or become so obsessed with your phobia that you are then re-classified as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). When a phobia is permanently extreme it may actually be a feature of a mental illness and each part of the illness needs to be treated.

    For those without a mental illness extreme phobias can be resolved very well and you are able to go on with your life as normal. It can be an enormous relief to gain the freedom to have an appropriate reaction to the stimulus that once terrified you.

  2. The second kind of phobia is manageable phobic reaction. You may become very uncomfortable when exposed to the stimulus but you manage to either get through the situation or avoid it without an extreme reaction. You may even manage to disguise the fact that you have an inappropriate phobic reaction at all.People can manage to live their whole life with manageable phobic reactions. It may even become a family joke that “Louise is afraid of heights.” No one takes it very seriously and Louisef manages to avoid all situations that involve heights and get through her life.
  3. The third kind of phobia is an unconscious phobia. This is when you have avoidance behaviours without being consciously aware of them. You formulate your life so you stay within your comfort zones.You are not really aware what you are doing but sometimes it becomes quite obvious to other people that you are avoiding certain situations, people, places or things.

    You may live very comfortably in your own microcosm for your whole life and it never causes you a problem and you may never be aware what is happening.

Finally, phobias are socially contextualised. In other words, what may be a phobia in one culture may not be a phobia in another depending on social norms.

Someone who comes in from the jungle into the middle of city may walk around looking for tigers. To the city people the person seems to have a phobia.

But the person living in the jungle is just are doing what they have done every day of their adult life: watch out for lurking tigers, because this was the norm in the jungle.


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