Most of us have things we’re afraid of that make us briefly anxious. Having a phobia is very different. It involves having an extreme, overpowering and persistent fear of a specific object or situation that’s out of proportion with the actual danger it poses.
Phobias can develop around a wide range of contexts such as flying, going to the dentist, being in spaces that are difficult to exit, encountering specific animals, and also in response to a wide array of objects, such as needles, vomit or blood, or even seemingly harmless objects too.
Specific phobias are among the most common anxiety disorders, and not all phobias need treatment. But if a specific phobia affects your daily life, several therapies are available that can help you work through and overcome your fears — often permanently.
People with a phobia will experience an intense sense of dread or panic when faced with the subject of their fear.
These fears can become all-consuming and have a big impact on the way someone functions in their everyday life, both at work and in personal relationships.
The precise causes of specific phobias are still unclear, but they may develop as a result of having a traumatic experience or panic attack related to a specific object or situation.
For example, a phobia of dogs could have been caused by a frightening experience you had with a dog, such as being chased or bitten. It can also occur from having witnessed a traumatic event happening to someone else. A phobia can also be learnt. For example if a child grows up with a mother who is very fearful of needles, it might be that the child grows up with a related fear.
Many people will not, however, know how their phobia first began. This is normal and makes no difference in terms of the effectiveness of CBT for a specific phobia.
Experiencing a phobia can have a huge impact on your day-to-day life, self-esteem and relationships, especially if you feel consumed by having to avoid the feared subject.
It can be difficult to know when to seek treatment for a phobia. If avoidance of the object, activity or situation that triggers your phobia does interfere with your everyday life, or keeps you from doing things you would otherwise enjoy, it may be time to seek help.
Even if you’ve experienced a phobia for a long time, the good news is it’s treatable. The most evidence-based treatment is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT for a specific phobia will involve noticing and understanding the thinking and behaviour that maintains the anxiety. Once this is well understood by you and your therapist, therapy progresses on to testing out new, potentially helpful ways of thinking and behaving. This will involve gradual steps towards the feared object or situation, always at your own pace and in a manner that ultimately reduces anxiety. CBT emphasises learning to develop a sense of mastery and confidence over your thoughts and feelings rather than feeling overwhelmed by them.
If you’re close to someone who is suffering with a phobia there are a number of things you can do to help them.
It’s important to take their phobia seriously. Even if you don’t understand the fear, it is likely causing them a lot of distress and anxiety.
Read online resources about what it is. Other people’s experiences will help you understand what they’re going through. Listen to the person about their personal experience too.
It can be important, even if you do so with the best of intentions, not to pressurise your friend or loved one into phobic situations or encounters with phobic objects before they decide they’re ready. Often, the best way forward is to encourage them to access psychological therapy, on their own terms, which will allow them to deal with the phobia through a structured approach they feel in control of.
Support them in seeking help. Help them arrange a GP appointment and go with them if they would like you to. The GP will refer them to a therapist who will be able to help.
Reassure them that help is available and that it’s absolutely possible to live a life free of any and all phobias.