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Fear: It’s the reaction to an immediate threat that motivates you to protect yourself.
It’s very common to have fears that make you uneasy, according to Dr Richard Moulding, a senior lecturer in Deakin University’s School of Psychology. ‘However, when that fear becomes extreme, and causes significant distress or significantly impacts a person’s life in some way, that fear may reflect a specific phobia,’ he explains.
‘There are a number of different types of specific phobias,’ says Dr Moulding. ‘Specifically, animal phobias (e.g. spiders, insects, dogs), the natural environment (e.g. heights, storms, water), blood-injection-injury type (e.g. needles, medical procedures), situational (e.g. flying, lifts, small places), and the “other” type (e.g. situations that may lead to choking, avoidance of loud sounds in children, and costumed characters such as clowns).
‘Specific phobias are quite common, and 75% of people with specific phobias have more than one phobia. Females tend to be more frequently affected (about 2:1), but this differs depending on type – blood-injection-injury is about 1:1,’ says Dr Moulding.
It’s unknown why particular people develop phobias while others don’t, but Dr Moulding says there are a number of known risk factors. ‘Phobias can develop following direct experience (e.g. getting stuck in a lift), seeing something happen to others (e.g. someone getting bitten by a dog), or an unexpected panic attack while in a situation (e.g. suddenly feeling panicky while on a train).’
He notes there are also genetic links in the development of phobias, and a ‘biological preparedness to form fears of things that, evolutionarily, are likely to have been a problem for our ancestors.’
‘Often though, people can’t remember what triggered their phobias, and this is likely to be connected to the relatively early age that people tend to develop them. Between the ages of seven and 11 is the most common, although they can start at any age,’ says Dr Moulding.
When a person comes into contact with the source of their phobia, they’re likely to feel intense anxiety and panic. This results in sweating, trembling, accelerated heartbeat, irregular breathing and other physical sensations of an anxiety attack. When exposed to the trigger, the person will feel unable to function properly, and can’t control their feelings of panic and anxiety, even if they know their fear is irrational.
The kind of toll a phobia takes on someone varies, Dr Moulding says, ‘depending on the potential for interference of that object or situation within the context of that person’s life. Often a person will find a way of structuring their life to avoid the fear.’
However, he notes that specific phobias shouldn’t be ridiculed, and the limitations they can bring to a person’s life can be extreme. ‘For example, blood-injection-injury phobias can make people unwilling to seek medical care,’ Dr Moulding explains.
Blood-injection-injury phobia can be debilitating as it can cause fainting. This differs from other phobias, Dr Moulding explains: ‘people with anxiety often feel like they are going to faint, they rarely do so – their heart rate is normally up, which is the exact opposite of fainting.’
‘Treatment for phobias is quite effective, and mainly involves psychological treatments, where the person – in a controlled and systematic way – gradually comes into increasing proximity to the feared event or situation (“graded exposure”),’ Dr Moulding says.
‘When direct proximity can’t be done for practical reasons or if it is too challenging, alternative ways of doing the therapy can be used (e.g. virtual reality, use of imagination).
‘For blood-injection-injury phobias, treatments are adapted to avoid the person fainting (e.g. through tensing muscle groups to keep up the blood pressure) as obviously that wouldn’t help treatment!’
Find yourself more intrigued than squeamish about phobias? Consider studying psychology at Deakin.
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