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Don't let a phobia spoil your life

Fears and phobias are today taken seriously

In medical speak, a phobia is a type of anxiety disorder, usually defined as a persistent fear of an object or situation. Phobias such as a fear of open spaces or a fear of flying can cause real problems and even less intrusive phobias such as arachnophobia (fear of spiders) can play havoc with emotions and confidence.

Fear releases adrenaline and other chemicals into the blood to speed up the heart-rate and sharpen our senses and physical reactions; a change known as “fight or flight” when the body has reacted to either fight something dangerous or to run away. A phobia is when we show this fearful reaction to something that isn’t really as harmful as we perceive; when we show irrational terror over an object or a situation.

Phobias can cause a number of symptoms, from minor to incapacitating. These can include sweating, a dry throat and heart palpitations to breathing problems, feeling faint and fuzzy vision. In serious cases, people can lose control of themselves and even cause injury in their panic to escape from the cause of their acute fear.

There are two types of phobias, a simple phobia which relates to fear of a specific object or situation; and complex phobias which cover a range of fears such as travelling, when you have anxiety about any form of public transport such as trains, buses or planes.

Phobias do not have a single cause; it is believed there are usually a number of factors involved such as:

  • A phobia may have been learned early in life from a parent or brother or sister
  • A phobia may have developed after association with a particular incident or trauma
  • Genetics may play a role, with some people having a natural tendency to be more anxious than others.

Whatever the cause, the good news is that now phobias are taken very seriously by the medical profession as well as by most members of the public, and most phobias can be successfully treated and cured. Another positive aspect is that, whatever the type of phobia, it won’t normally cause any long term ill effects.

The easiest treatment is of course avoidance, and if the fear is of snakes, for instance, then these are usually able to be avoided easily and the problems are minimal. However, if the phobia is perhaps achluophobia, a fear of darkness, or agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces, then the problem is far more difficult and avoidance is not the answer.

Anyone suffering from an acute phobia should seek professional help as today there are treatments available that can really make a difference. The first port of call is to your GP, who will assess the severity of the problem and may suggest counselling, psychotherapy or perhaps cognitive behavioural therapy. Some people say they have been helped by hypnotherapy, and with less severe phobias, the fear may be able to be treated by a desensitization programme.

This is a form of behaviour therapy when a therapist sets out a specific programme to gradually expose you to the object or situation that causes the fear. The key here is to start very slowly indeed and progress only at a comfortable pace. The programme can include breathing techniques and relaxation programmes to help the sufferer keep calm and gain confidence in the face of the perceived “enemy”.

Medication is usually only used in really severe cases and can include transquilisers, antidepressants and beta-blockers. These are used for a short term while the sufferer is transferred into a different programme of help and support.

A key to support is to ensure you do not belittle or make fun of the phobia; it is a very real fear and not something to be trivialised or taken lightly. Having good support from close friends and relatives can help a sufferer reduce and even overcome their fears.

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