Everyone experiences fear. Aoife Hardesty investigates when those fears become hard to handle.
IMAGINE a fear so strong that it takes over your body and mind. Imagine being so terrified of an object/place/situation that that fear consumes and controls you, leaving you helpless. You go out of your way to avoid the source of your fear, no matter how irrational it may be. If you do have to deal with the fear, you have a physical response, maybe fainting, a panic attack, a something else. Such a disorder is called a phobia, named after Phobos, the Greek god of fear.
A phobia is a crippling anxiety disorder in which a persistent, relentless fear can take over someone’s life. More than just the feeling of fear, having a phobia means the sufferer will go to great lengths to avoid the object of their fear and have an adverse physical response when faced with the object of their fear.
Phobia anxiety disorder can be divided into three categories: specific phobia, agoraphobia and social phobia.
“Phobia anxiety disorder can be divided into three categories: specific phobia, agoraphobia and social phobia”
Specific phobia is a fear of a certain object/animal/situation. Some examples: acrophobia is the fear of heights, claustrophobia is the fear of enclosed spaces, cynophobia is the fear of dogs and galeophobia is the fear of sharks.
Though Agoraphobia is commonly thought of as the fear of open spaces, it can also be a fear of leaving your house, or leaving a place in which you feel safe. It has been suggested that reclusive poet Emily Dickinson suffered from agoraphobia as she never left her house.
“Subsequent encounters with the scary thing result in an overreaction of the fight or flight response which leads to panic, anxiety and stress”
Social phobia is more usually called social anxiety disorder. It is the fear of public situations and social interactions, which might lead to embarrassment.
Evolutionarily, fear has kept us safe. We learn what situations are dangerous and to be fearful of such situations. Think of two hunters in a wood hunting for dinner and there’s a rustle in the bushes, a tiger jumps out and gobbles up one hunter, the surviving hunter runs home scared and the tribe learns to avoid the tiger due to fear, protecting them from becoming the tiger’s dinner.
For the surviving hunter in that scenario, fear triggers a biological response. The body becomes flooded with hormones that put the body on red alert, into a stressed state, ready for fight or flight. For people with a phobia, that fight or flight response occurs in overdrive when faced with the object of fear, and it’s basically because the brain is over-reacting.
“Social phobia is more usually called social anxiety disorder. It is the fear of public situations and social interactions which might lead to embarrassment”
Fear begins within our brains, and fear learning is processed by a structure called the amygdala. Things that make us scared are encoded into memory as “scary” by passing through the amygdala. Such scary things are better remembered than non-scary things, because it’s important to our survival to remember scary things that might otherwise result in our deaths. In phobias, it’s thought that the initial learning event for “that thing is scary” is overexaggerated by the amygdala. Subsequent encounters with the scary thing result in an overreaction of the fight-or-flight response, which leads to panic, anxiety and stress.
For people with a phobia that greatly affects their day-to-day lives, they can seek help from a doctor. Like with other anxiety disorders, therapy and medications are available to help people live fulfilling lives. Therapy can help people develop techniques to overcome the panic reaction and medications can be used to combat the fight or flight response.
Phobias are real anxiety disorders, and should be taken as seriously as other mental illnesses, so if someone ever tells you they have a phobia, don’t belittle or mock them. Listen to what they say, be kind, and try to understand them.