Acera Health

What Is a Phobia?

What Is a Phobia?

Phobias are more common than most people realize. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 12.5% of adults living in the U.S. have lived with or currently live with a phobia. However, many people misunderstand what exactly a phobia is, and such misinformation is often used to mock and ridicule people who feel real, genuine fear. 

What Is a Phobia?

A phobia is defined as an irrational fear of an object, animal, person, or situation that causes intense distress in an individual. Note that there is a difference between rational and irrational fear. Rational fear is instinctual in every human being. For example, humans have the instinct to avoid animals that can bite and sting, such as bees, spiders, and snakes. This is a basic survival trait that tells someone that this is a potentially dangerous animal and to leave them alone. 

However, some people fear these animals so much that they cannot handle seeing photographs or facsimiles of them without experiencing extreme panic. This causes someone to go out of their way to avoid their fear, which can negatively impact someone’s life. Sometimes people are so fearful that they may never leave their homes or interact with other people, too afraid just in case the object of their phobia comes up. When it does come up, the reaction is often extreme and can often trigger a fight or flight response. 

Types of Phobias

Just about anything can become a phobia, but the most common types of phobias that people experience are:

  • Arachnophobia: Fear of spiders
  • Claustrophobia: Fear of enclosed spaces
  • Acrophobia: Fear of heights
  • Ophidiophobia: Fear of snakes
  • Social phobia: Fear of social interaction
  • Agoraphobia: Fear of difficult-to-escape places
  • Cynophobia:  Fear of dogs
  • Mysophobia: Fear of germs and contaminants

Crossover With Mental Health Disorders

Note that many of these phobias are common in those that deal with an anxiety disorder. Fear is a large part of anxiety, so many people who struggle to manage their anxiety have to also juggle a phobia on top of it. 

Sometimes those that have experienced a traumatic event, such as a dog attack, may develop a long-lasting phobia as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  In nearly all cases, phobias are the result of a singular event that has traumatized someone. Some types of specific phobias can also arise as a result of another type of mental health disorder. 

For example, those that live with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) struggle with various compulsions. One of the more common compulsions is to obsessively clean because of mysophobia. The distress of this phobia only enhances the OCD compulsion, creating a vicious cycle of stress and fear. 

Phobias range in severity from those that simply hate the object of their phobia to those that cannot function in society as long as the representation of their phobia is present.

How Are Phobias Treated?

Fortunately, phobias are something that can be treated with time and patience. Forcing someone to “get over” a phobia never works and only results in further traumatizing a person. Phobias take time to treat and tend to be treated using exposure therapy. This is a type of psychotherapy that is specifically designed to treat someone’s fears. Exposing someone to their fear in a safe and controlled environment by a professional gives the best chance for someone to recover from it. 

For example, if someone is arachnophobic, they may begin their therapy by looking at cartoon illustrations of spiders. After they become used to that, it progresses to looking at pictures of real spiders. Once someone has gotten used to that level of exposure, it increases gradually in intensity. After a lot of positive reinforcement, someone may even be encouraged to hold a living spider. Once someone understands that it won’t hurt them, many people heal from their fear and go on to live life with less stress than before. 

Because phobias are so strongly tied to other anxiety-based mental health disorders, this type of treatment is often used for them as well. 

Why You Shouldn’t Laugh at Phobias

Someone may be tempted to laugh at someone for admitting they have a phobia, especially those that are considered “weird.” You may look at someone with ablutophobia (fear of washing and bathing) and think that it’s ridiculous. How can someone be afraid of taking a bath? But remember, these are real fears being experienced by real people, and you have no idea how their phobias developed. 

They could have witnessed a tragedy or been abused and now associate bathing with pain. Every time they attempt to bathe, they are reminded of their trauma and are forced to relive it through an action that most people take for granted. You may not even begin to imagine how it must feel to dread something considered so normal and then have people mock you when you gather enough bravery to look for help. 

Despite a phobia being irrational, it still invokes real feelings of pain and terror in people. It is not something to be mocked or exploited for a laugh.

Even small phobias can have a significant impact on someone’s life. This is why it is important to remember that help is always available. Phobias can be treated, but the shame involved is often enough to discourage anyone. Remember that a mental health professional’s job is to help, never to judge or tear down someone for being afraid. If you know someone who has a phobia, encourage them to reach out for help and support them. If you have a phobia, look for support from those you love and trust. 

Phobias are no joking matter, and the more we take them seriously, the more people will seek treatment for them.

Fear is an emotion that humans develop as a way to help us avoid dangerous situations. However, when your life becomes nothing but fear, it officially becomes a problem. People are not designed to live with constant fear, and it can have a severe negative impact on someone’s mental health. Here at Acera Health in Costa Mesa, California, we offer treatments designed to help people conquer their fears, especially those struggling with a phobia. We understand that these are real feelings, and we would never judge someone for reaching out for help. If you or someone you love is struggling with their fear, call (949) 647-4090 today to speak with our helpful staff. Everyone deserves to feel safe. 


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