A phobia is a special kind of fear: an intense, persistent fear of a particular thing or situation. There are many different types of phobias. For example, social phobia is an intense, persistent fear of being painfully embarrassed in a social setting. Agoraphobia is a significant fear of being in any situation that might provoke a panic attack, or from which escape might be difficult.
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Whenever Bethani, who recently turned 15, enters a building above two stories, she checks to see if the building has stairs. She is intensely afraid of riding an elevator. Even though her friends tease her, and she herself readily admits that her fears are "silly," once an elevator door closes, she begins to sweat and her heart starts to beat uncontrollably. "It's like I'm trapped," she tells them. "As if I'll never, ever escape."
What Are Phobias?
Phobias occur in several forms. While all people, at one time or another, find themselves uncomfortable in a social situation, phobias go beyond social awkwardness. In a phobia, the exposure to the particular event provokes such enormous anxiety that it can lead to a panic attack * . The person will do almost anything to avoid the situation.
Social phobias can cause persistent fear of humiliation or embarrassment in certain social situations, such as walking into a classroom or even leaving the house. Individuals may feel as if everyone is looking at them. The phobia, for example, may persist to the point where the affected person spends all of his or her time at a party hiding in a corner to avoid others.
When exposed to the trigger of the specific phobia, a person may experience high levels of anxiety, which may include a panic attack. People with specific fears, such as Bethani's fear of elevators, may know that their fear might be "silly" or "irrational," but the fear still produces significant distress. Sometimes, particularly with children, the person may not understand that their fear is excessive or unwarranted.
* panic attack is a period of intense fear or discomfort with a feeling of doom and a desire to escape. The person may shake, sweat be short of breath, and experience chest pain.
Traumatic events can often lead to the development of specific phobias. Social phobias often begin in mid-teens, with the average onset between the ages of 15 and 20, although some social phobias can begin in childhood. Specific phobias can start at any age. Research has shown that many social phobias may have a hereditary component.
What Are Common Types of Phobias?
The most common type of phobia is social phobia, which is a persistent fear of humiliation or embarrassment in certain social situations. Closely connected to social phobia is agoraphobia (literally "fear of the marketplace"), which is the fear of being in a place or situations where escape might be difficult or embarrassing. People suffering from agora-phobia believe they might suddenly develop a panic attack. To cope, those with agoraphobia simply avoid any difficult situations, or endure them with anxiety.
Other specific phobias such as arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, or hydrophobia, fear of water, can lead people to avoid specific situations, where they might be confronted by frightening stimuli.
How Are Phobias Treated?
A number of prescription medications are available to treat social phobias. People with specific phobias also may benefit from counseling or psychotherapy using systemic desensitization. In this form of therapy, working with a therapist in a safe environment, people are gradually exposed to the situations or objects that cause fear. They learn techniques involving relaxation, imagery, and deep breathing that allow them an opportunity to work through their fears gradually.
Calling All Phobias
The number of specific phobias that affect people covers the alphabet, from ablutophobia, a fear of washing or bathing, to zoophobia, a fear of animals. Other common (and uncommon) phobias include:
- Arachibutyrophobia: fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth
- Arithmophobia: fear of numbers
- Genuphobia: fear of knees
- Ichthyophobia: fear of fish
- Pupaphobia: fear of puppets
- Pteromerhanophobia: fear of flying
- Testophobia: fear of taking tests
The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health posts a fact sheet about
phobias at its website.