© Alexa Moon

What is a phobia?
Phobia is an effective form of anxiety disorder characterized by persistent fear, which provokes an anxiety response disproportionate to the actual threat. Unlike general anxiety disorder that involves excessive worries about several different life circumstances, phobias tend to be more specific. Despite realizing that their fear is irrational, particular objects or situations still provoke an excessive, uncontrollable fear in individuals with phobias.

Common types of phobias and fears
Simple phobias are phobias with a specific focus, such as a particular object or situation. They are usually developed during early childhood (e.g., before ten years old) and become less severe when they reach adulthood. Examples of simple phobias include animal phobia (fear of animals), environmental phobia (fear of specific natural circumstances such as heights), situational phobia (fear of particular situations such as going to a dentist), bodily phobia (fear associated with invasive medical procedures such as injection or witnessing blood) and sexual phobia (fear of sexual intercourse).

Complex phobias are more disruptive than simple phobias because they are associated with deep-rooted circumstances which could be traced back to early childhood experiences. Unlike simple phobias that have an earlier onset, complex phobias are normally developed during adulthood. The most common examples of complex phobias are agoraphobia and social phobia. Agoraphobia is centered on the fear of visiting crowded or open areas. Due to the fear of being “trapped” or unable to get immediate help if a panic attack ensues, individuals with agoraphobia tend to avoid being alone, taking public transport, or visiting a shopping complex. On the other hand, social phobia is rooted in an individual’s fear of being negatively evaluated by others, leading them to avoid social situations and eventually impair their normal social functioning.

Signs and symptoms of phobias
The most common symptom of phobia is a panic attack, characterized by the increased palpitations, shortness of breath, nausea, trembling, and profuse sweating. However, not all types of phobias demonstrate the same pattern of physiological arousal. For instance, individuals with hemophobia (fear of blood) usually have near-fainting experiences, marked by a drop of blood pressure and deceleration of heart rate following the rise in blood pressure and acceleration of heart rate. Furthermore, children with phobias also express their anxiety differently from adults. The symptoms of phobias in children include crying, clinging, throwing tantrums, and freezing.

Risk factors of phobias
Phobias have genetic predispositions because individuals are more likely to develop specific phobias if they have a first-degree relative with a similar phobia. Besides that, having a neurotic personality is also believed to be a risk factor for phobias.

How do phobias occur?
Experiencing or witnessing traumatic events could result in phobia. For instance, phobias of dogs could arise as a result of having a bad experience with dogs. According to the two-factor theory, phobias are learned through classical conditioning and maintained through operant conditioning. A person that was bitten by a dog at one occasion associated the pain with the dog (classical conditioning). They later avoid situations with dogs to prevent fearful emotions from arising, and this acts as a form of reward that reinforces them to avoid dog situations in the future (operant conditioning). Besides that, phobias also occur in people that hold biased cognitive schema. The misinterpretation of the events is the leading underlying cause of phobias because individuals with phobias tend to overestimate the danger and underestimate their coping ability.

Treating a phobia
Systematic desensitization

The systematic desensitization technique is used to treat phobias. After learning relaxation techniques such as breathing meditation, the patient creates an anxiety hierarchy by identifying the anxiety-provoking items and ranking them from the least anxiety-provoking to the most anxiety-provoking. Later, relaxation exercises are performed when the patient is gradually exposed to the anxiety-provoking things until the phobia is desensitized.


Virtual reality exposure therapy

Virtual reality exposure therapy aims to demonstrate the irrationality of the patients’ fear by exposing the patients to their feared objects in a virtual realm. The patients wear a head-mounting display during the treatment to experience sensory cues in a three-dimensional virtual world. This form of therapy effectively treated various conditions of phobias, such as phobias of flying and driving. 


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