National Face Your Fears Day: What are phobias? (Part 1 of 4)

National Face Your Fears Day: What are phobias? (Part 1 of 4)

Fears can be debilitating. This is especially true of specific phobias, which often have the power to take over an individual’s daily life. Despite awareness of the irrationality of their condition, most individuals with specific phobias feel intense anxiety in situations in any way related to the subject of their fear. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) identifies specific phobias as “[m]arked fear or anxiety about a specific object or situation (e.g. fling, heights, animals, receiving an injection, seeing blood).” In honor of National Face Your Fears Day on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, specialists explore the realities surrounding phobias and the people who cope with them.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), specific phobias affect approximately 8.7 percent of adults in the U.S. during a 12-month period. However, only 1.9 percent of this demographic have phobias classified as “severe.” Specific phobias can develop for various reasons, including those stemming from a traumatic event. There are various diagnoses for specific phobias, dependent on the phobic stimulus. The DSM-5 lists phobic stimuli as “Animal,” “Natural environment,” “Blood-injection-injury,” “Situational,” and “Other.” If two phobias are present, such as fear of dogs and fear of airplanes, two separate diagnoses are required.

Phobias can co-occur with other disorders, as the OCD Center of Los Angeles notes that approximately 7 percent of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) concurrently have one or more phobias. The obsessions and compulsive behaviors and avoidance surrounding the phobic stimulus in individuals with phobias are similar to traditional symptoms of OCD. However, criteria for a specific phobia diagnosis require that the symptoms not be caused by other mental health disorders. Since symptoms often overlap, phobias can easily be misdiagnosed. For instance, someone who is afraid to leave their home might be diagnosed with social anxiety disorder when they truly have agoraphobia, or vice versa.

Many treatment options are available for those facing specific phobias. Exposure therapy is common for addressing fears and phobias, forcing the individual into either imagined or real scenarios in which contact with the phobic stimulus occurs. The exposure ideally lasts until the stimulus no longer triggers such intense feelings of anxiety and fear. Other forms of therapy recommended by the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), relaxation techniques and medication, if needed.

If you or a loved one is coping with a specific phobia, it can seem overwhelming. Help is available. Contact the California Mental Health helpline at 855-559-3923 to speak with a professional today.