A phobia is an intense and debilitating fear of something – an object, place, situation, feeling or animal – that poses little or no actual danger. Someone with a phobia has a very strong need to avoid all contact with the source of their anxiety. If contact is unavoidable, it is endured with dread.
People may not seek help if they fear something that is easy to avoid in day-to-day life (for example, snakes). In many cases, however, phobias can cause a lot of anxiety and distress, restricting people’s day-to-day life. In severe cases, the person may organise their life around avoiding the thing that is causing them anxiety.
Like all anxiety disorders, the tendency towards avoidance and escape provides short-term relief but long-term damage, blocking the brain’s ability to learn and preventing people from living full lives.
Types of phobia
There are two types of phobias – simple or specific phobias and complex phobias.
Simple/specific phobias often begin during early childhood. They include:
Complex phobias tend to be more disabling than simple/specific phobias and usually start later in life. Often associated with a deep-rooted anxiety about a particular situation, two of the most common complex phobias are agoraphobia and social phobia (also known as social anxiety disorder).
People become anxious or distressed when they come near to, or into contact with, the feared situation. Sometimes, the very thought of the object of fear is enough to induce anxiety or panic. Additionally, people may experience one of more of the unpleasant physical symptoms of anxiety. These include:
Very – phobias are the most common type of anxiety disorder. An estimated 10 million people in the UK have a phobia. US data suggests that 12.5 per cent of people will suffer from a specific or simple phobia during the course of their adult life. Among younger people in the US, an estimated 15 per cent of 13- to 18-year olds – more than 1 in 7 – suffer from specific/simple phobias.
Phobias are among the most treatable mental health conditions. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is the recognised treatment of choice for both adults and children. Short-term treatments are usually sufficient for the treatment of simple or specific phobias. In therapy, we will explore cognitive skills that help you replace catastrophised thoughts with reasonable beliefs. Therapy will be educational and collaborative. Clients learn to develop an inner voice that helps them to stay grounded during anxiety-inducing situations.
Additionally, gradual exposure to your fear – a process known as desensitisation – will be central to the successful treatment of simple phobias. CBT aims to help people rid themselves of the avoidant safety behaviours that keeps them stuck. Exposure is key in this regard. This policy of graded exposure means we will begin with less stressful experiences and situations. This helps you to gain confidence so that bit by bit, you become eager to effectively take on bigger challenges and to take control of your phobia.