Phobia - simple/specific

Definition
A phobia is a persistent and irrational fear of a particular type of object, animal, activity or situation.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Specific phobias are a type of Anxiety disorder. Exposure to the feared stimulus may provoke extreme anxiety or a panic attack.

Common phobias include the fear of particular animals (e.g., dogs or snakes), insects or spiders, high places, lightening, flying, and blood. People with specific phobias often realize that their fear is irrational but are unable to prevent it.

Specific phobias are among the most common of all psychiatric disorders, affecting up to 10% of the population.

Symptoms

     
  • Exposure to the feared object provokes an anxiety reaction.  
  • The anxiety and discomfort is out of proportion to the real threat of the feared object.  
  • Sweating.  
  • Poor motor control.  
  • Rapid heart rate.  
  • The person comes to avoid situations in which contact with the feared object or animal may occur - for example, avoiding driving through tunnels, if tunnels are the subject of the specific phobia. This type of avoidance can interfere with job and social functioning.  
  • The person may feel weak or cowardly and lose self-esteem when avoiding the object of the phobia.

Signs and tests

     
  • Rapid heart rate  
  • Elevated blood pressure  
  • History of phobia  
  • Description of behavior from family, friends, and affected person

Treatment

The goal of treatment is to help the person function effectively. The success of the treatment usually depends on the severity of the phobia.

Systematic desensitization is a technique used to treat phobias. The person is asked to relax, then imagine the components of the phobia, working from the least fearful to the most fearful. Graded real-life exposure has also been used with success to help people overcome their fears.

Anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications are sometimes used to help relieve the symptoms associated with phobias. However, some anti-anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines, may cause physical dependence.

Phobia clinics and group therapy are available in some areas to help people deal with common phobias, such as a fear of flying.

Expectations (prognosis)

Phobias tend to be chronic, but can respond to treatment.

Complications

Some phobias may have consequences that affect job performance or social functioning. Some medications can cause dependence.

Calling your health care provider

Call for an appointment with your health care provider or a mental health professional if a simple phobia is interfering with life activities.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 8, 2012
by Brenda A. Kuper, M.D.

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