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Specific phobias

Many people may feel uncomfortable if they see blood, spiders or heights. When the fear is so strong that it prevents you from living the life you want, it is called a specific phobia. Effective treatment is available that can cure most cases.

What is a specific phobia?

A specific phobia means excessive, continual fear of a particular thing or situation. When a person encounters the object of the phobia, they may react with anxiety and severe discomfort or panic. Finding something unpleasant does not mean you have a phobia. However, if someone goes to great lengths to avoid fear, which becomes an obstacle in life, this may be a phobia.

The specific phobias are divided into different groups in the psychiatry field. The first is animal phobia, which can make a person very afraid of snakes, spiders, rats or dogs, for example. There are also phobias concerning natural phenomena such as heights, thunder or water. Another phobia concerns specific situations and claustrophobia (fear of narrow spaces), and may make the person terrified of being in an elevator or airplane. Other phobias are blood phobia and a fear of suffocating or vomiting. Blood phobia may cause a person to faint at the sight of blood.

Specific phobias usually appear between the ages of six and twelve, with the exception of phobias about specific situations, which commonly appear at ages 13-22. Whether a person develops a phobia may be due to genes, and is based on our congenital fight or flight behavior. We learn to fear and react to certain things in order to survive — a function that has gone too far in the case of phobia.

Women develop phobias more often than men. Three out of four people with phobias have at least two.

What effect may this have on someone’s life?

The fear experienced with a phobia can be a serious obstacle in everyday life. Avoidance behaviours may complicate both social and working life. For example in the case of a snake phobia, this means that you are not only afraid to encounter a snake but also to see a photo or one on a TV. Therefore the person with the phobia constantly scans the environment, making it difficult to spend time in parks or the outdoors. The phobia may be so disabling that the person does not leave their home.

Different phobias are dominated by different emotions. An animal phobia, such as fear of snakes for example, often often consists of disgust and avoidance of the cause, while blood phobia is entails the fear of fainting, which may cause the person to avoid going to the dentist or doctor for example, which may be risky.

Is it possible to feel better?

Not all specific phobias need to be treated; it depends on how much the phobia limits the person. If you or a relative experiences such a strong and long-standing fear of something specific that it becomes an obstacle in life, you should seek help. Untreated phobias often continue.

You can contact a health centre or psychiatric outpatient clinic. Another option is to turn directly to a therapist who specialises in cognitive behavioural therapy.

Diagnosis and treatment

Establishing a diagnosis is relatively easy, as the patient is often aware of their fear and why they are seeking help. This is tested by exposing the person to the source of their fear in degrees of increasing difficulty, while they report the degree of discomfort at the same time.

Phobias can very often be completely cured through treatment. The most common type of treatment is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which consists of gradually exposing oneself to the source of the phobia.