Phobias - what they are and how to stop them taking over your life!
Phobias are one of those topics which always make for a good "...and finally" segment - they can be light hearted - or even "odd" enough to engage and elicit curiosity, but also relevant enough in all our lives that it doesn't hurt to know how we can help ourselves.
Many of us have mild phobias - usually of things that are quite reasonable to be afraid of - heights, snakes, spiders...but sometimes we might fear wind farms, or the texture of cotton wool, or buttons.
When I say "fear", I mean - when we meet the object/environment our limbic system kicks in - eliciting the physiological "flight or flight" response - preparing the body to attack or run (heart rate rises, we might sweat, get palpitations, and altogether it's a very unpleasant feeling). It becomes hugely disruptive when it impacts your life - such as the feeling of fear is so great it provokes a panic attack, or friends and family find themselves hyper-aware of the fear context. I have had a long time "fear" of stained glass windows...now my husband "looks out" for them whenever we visit anywhere new!
In terms of "getting over" my fear - I can manage my response enough so that it is possible for me to attend weddings/give readings in a church, not ask people to draw the curtains if they have stained glass in their homes or in a training venue, and I have even designed and painted a stage set comprising 5 stained glass manels (see pic). However, I still have to "steel" myself for it (with deep breathing, reminding myself I'm ok) and if I should ever be "surprised" by one (not that it "jumps out and barks at me" or anything), but see one I wasn't expecting, I do have a moment of "shock" which soon subsides as I return to my breathing practice. This is why I have included a photo of one in this article...which also needed "searching" for amongst a number of different designs.
So, I thought I would give a whistle-stop overview of the psychology of phobias, and how we might be able to both deal - or support others - with one.
What is a phobia?
Phobias fall within the diagnostic category of “Anxiety disorders”. They are an “overwhelming and debilitating fear of an object, place, situation, feeling, or animal.” (NHS website). They are more pronounced than fears because they often present as an exaggerated or “unrealistic” sense of danger about the thing they are phobic of (at least in the eyes of others).
Phobias can also be simple (eg a fear of an object) or social (eg. shyness or claustrophobia), and unfortunately one can lead to another eg emetophobia (fear of being (or seeing someone be) sick) could potentially lead to agoraphobia – the fear of leaving the house (ie. In case you face the feared scenario).
Anyone can have them, the may be learned, they can sometimes be part of how we have evolved (eg. to fear things that may have killed us eg. snakes), or they may occur due to unfortunate associations eg: leaving the house and your parents tell you they are divorcing on your return is another route to agoraphobia.
When might a phobia take over your life?
Many people can “manage” their phobias to the point where they only feel as sense of unease around the object or situation, but if the response is extreme and begins to affect your daily life, then it is important to seek help.
Symptoms can include:
- A sense of dread
- Constantly feeling “on edge”
- Difficulty concentrating/preoccupation with the feared object/situation
These will often be the symptoms of stress including:
- Tiredness/lack of sleep
- Strong or irregular heartbeat
- Muscle aches or tension
- Sweating and or shaking
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling or being sick
Unfortunately they can affect your ability to function and in turn can cause further consequences for example if a lack of sleep causes lapses in your focus you may underperform at work, or if you become easily irritable this can affect relationships. Further, if you notice loved ones start responding differently eg they are on edge if they notice the feared object/situation (often because they fear for your response) – your behaviour can be affecting them, and any of this indicates it’s definitely time to seek help.
How might you try and overcome a phobia?
Phobias can be difficult to treat because they can be deeply rooted so to even find the original cause can take work. Some of the methods which can be effective under clinical conditions (such as “flooding” – forcing you to spend time in the feared situation until the anxiety subsides…with the premise being that you can only sustain such heightened anxiety for a limited period) can be extremely discomforting and dangerous), and as such phobias are best treated by an experienced practitioner who has time and experience in this area – as well as knowledge regarding management of your anxiety.
Sometimes, it can be possible to systematically desensitise yourself to the situation or object – such as looking first at pictures of it, and managing your breathing or practicing other forms of emotion regulation, then progressing to a “live” version of it far away, then bringing it nearer – until such time as you no longer experience the fear response.
What is important however is that loved ones find a healthy balance between being compassionate, and enabling/reinforcing the behaviour. Over-protecting the person will not necessarily help them become stronger. This is why professional intervention would be recommended with your support network helping you implement the “homework”.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt