Understanding Phobias: Causes and Treatment
Most people have at least one or two minor irrational fears, but for some people those fears are more pronounced. A phobia is an overwhelming and debilitating fear of something that, in reality, possesses no danger. Phobias cause those who suffer from them a lot of anxiety and, in some cases, can have a serious impact on their day to day lives. If you have a severe phobia, it’s important to understand what may be causing it and how it can be treated.
What Causes Phobias?
There are two types of phobia – simple and complex. Simple phobias, which may also be referred to as specific phobias, usually develop during childhood. They’re typically linked to a negative early childhood experience. For example, you may have been trapped in a confined space, leading to a fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia) later in life. Alternatively, you may have “learnt” a phobia in your formative years. For example, someone in your family may have a fear of spiders and, as you witnessed that fear while growing up, you developed the same fear yourself.
Complex phobias occur for no apparent reason, but are often the more debilitating kind. Social phobia and agoraphobia are among the most common types of complex phobia. Many people dismiss complex phobias as being all in the sufferer’s head, but they actually trigger a range of physical symptoms, as the body releases the hormone adrenalin. This can include a rapid heartbeat, sweating, trembling and shortness of breath. This type of phobia is thought to be caused by a combination of genetics, brain chemistry and life experiences.
What Can You Do About Phobias?
There are plenty of self-help strategies that can help you reduce the impact of your phobia on your life. These strategies are always worth a try because the more you can do to help yourself, the more in control of your fears you’ll feel. Here are a few things you may want to try:
- Face Your Fears
It’s only natural to want to avoid something you fear, but facing your fears is the key to overcoming your phobia in the long-term. The best thing to do is gradually and repeatedly expose yourself to the thing you fear in a safe and controlled way. Over time, you’ll learn to ride out the anxiety until it passes and you’ll find it easier to focus on the fact that the thing you fear is causing you no harm. Then the phobia loses its power over you.
- Learn Relaxation Techniques
When you feel afraid or anxious, you start to experience some uncomfortable physical symptoms, but relaxation techniques can help you reduce these. Deep breathing exercises may be all it takes to help you feel a little bit calmer. Simply sit or stand with your back straight and take deep, slow breaths. Breathe in through your nose, counting to four, then hold that breath for a count of seven. Exhale through your mouth to a count of eight. Repeat this cycle until you feel more relaxed. You may want to practice this technique at times when you don’t feel anxious so you’ll be more ready to use it in stressful situations.
- Challenge Negative Thoughts
Phobias trigger anxious thoughts that are usually both negative and unrealistic. Making a conscious effort to confront and challenge these thoughts can really help you feel a little more in control when faced with what you fear. If you’re in an elevator and find yourself thinking that it will break down, and you’ll get trapped and suffocate, use the rational part of your brain to challenge that thought. This may mean focusing on the fact that there are air vents in the elevator or that you’ve never actually known anyone to have suffocated in an elevator. Remind yourself of all the times you’ve had that negative thought before, yet nothing terrible happened.
What Treatments are Available?
If you’re struggling to overcome a phobia, there are various treatment methods available. All phobias are different, so there’s no single guaranteed cure for all. One type of treatment may work for you, or you may need a combination of different treatments. The main types of treatment are talking treatments and medication.
Talking treatments, such as counselling and psychotherapy, are often very effective methods for treating phobias. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has been found to be particularly helpful. The CBT treatment process helps you change the way you think and behave, allowing you to develop practical ways of dealing with your phobia. It will usually involve gradual exposure to your fear so that you feel less anxious about it, which is known as desensitisation.
Medication isn’t often recommended for treating phobias because talking therapies are usually more effective and don’t have any side effects. However, medication is sometimes prescribed on a short-term basis to reduce debilitating anxiety. Antidepressants, tranquilisers or beta-blockers may be prescribed in some cases.
If you suffer from a phobia that can’t be avoided and seriously affects your day to day life, speak to your doctor about it to find out which method of treatment can help you the most. Make sure you try out self-help techniques too, which will allow you to feel more in control of your fear and anxiety.
To find out how you can help someone deal with anxiety, click here to read our earlier article.
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