Fear is a rational response to something that is perceived as dangerous or threatening. This is a healthy reaction that our bodies have that has ensured the survival of our species throughout the millenia. Phobias, on the other hand, are extreme or irrational fears of something. They are also a common anxiety disorder that, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), affects between 8.7% and 18.1% of Americans.
There is no limit to what can constitute a phobia. They range from the mundane to the drastic and vary from lightning to light bulbs and from tigers to tiger lilies. In addition, phobias don't just have to be related to objects. A phobia can also be of a person, situation, place, action or feeling. One might fear doctors, going to the dentist, office buildings, mowing the lawn or falling in love. Nothing in the human experience is immune to the potential of being a phobia.
Some phobias are more common than others. Arachnophobia, or the fear of spiders, affects the largest number of people. It affects more woman than men; it is believed that up to 50% of women suffer from a mild arachophobia or worse. While fearing spiders can be useful in some situations (as some are poisonous), a person with arachnophobia might feel very uneasy in any area that might be home to a spider. Seeing a spider web could lead to a full blown panic attack.
Another very common phobia is a fear of snakes. This is called ophidiophobia. It is separate from a rational fear of being hurt by a snake. A phobic might be very disturbed by even a picture of a snake. Indiana Jones himself suffers from ophidiophobia!
A fear of heights, or acrophobia, also affects many people. While skyscrapers and cliffs are obvious triggers, even climbing up a set of stairs can be traumatic. This can interfere with normal functioning. Other common phobias include fears of dogs, thunder and lightning, injections and flying.
Sometimes fears are related to another problem. Mysophobia, or the fear of germs and dirt, is often associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Social phobias are a category of their own. Being around other people, especially groups of people, can create serious problems in everyday living. Agoraphobia, a fear of being trapped in places where there is no escape, can make people afraid to leave their homes. These phobias, especially, should be treated through professional help.
There are several treatment options available. Systematic desensitization gradually exposes the person to the thing he fears and might include virtual reality, imagery exercises, and exposure to whatever the fear is. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps the person change thought patterns that contribute to the phobia. Sometimes hypnotherapy can be used to remove associations that might cause phobic reations. In some cases, antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications provide relief.
Often a combination of several techniques allows a person to work through and overcome the phobia. While there may be discomfort involved in getting rid of a phobia, the end result of a life with less fear is certainly worth it!