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Phobias - More than Simple Fears

written by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 6/2/2011

The National Institute of Mental Health states that about 40 million adults in the United States have an anxiety disorder, including specific phobias, social phobia and agoraphobia. But what is a phobia? It is more than just a fear — it is excessive or unreasonable, interfering in patients' lives.

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    "It’s Just That Feeling of Being Trapped"

    People deal with anxiety in everyday life. It can be related to work or problems in a relationship. Sometimes people can have fears about specific things. But when that particular fear affects a person's life, it is considered a phobia. But what is a phobia? It is a specific type of anxiety disorder defined as an intense fear that does not threaten the person's life. The patient realizes that the fear is irrational, but cannot control it or the anxiety response. There may be feelings powerlessness when faced with the source of a phobia. When a person with a phobia thinks about that specific fear, it can trigger anxiety.

    In the National Institute of Mental Health's case example of a specific phobia, the patient describes it as "I picture myself losing control, freaking out, and climbing the walls, but of course I never did that. I’m not afraid of crashing or hitting turbulence. It’s just that feeling of being trapped." To prevent the anxiety reaction from occurring, the patient will make an effort to avoid the source of the phobia.

    As the MayoClinic.com points out, the fear that derives from a phobia is long-lasting, compared to the brief experience of anxiety some people may have before a giving a presentation in public for example. The anxiety from a phobia is strong enough to prevent the person from functioning normally. For example, people with social phobias avoid situations in which they have to interact with other people, which can affect them professionally and relationship-wise.

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    Fears Vs Phobias

    Everyone has fears, but what differentiates a fear from a phobia? For it to be considered a phobia, it must disrupt the person's life. For example, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) requires that the source of the phobia causes the patient a "marked and persistent fear that is excessive and unreasonable" and an "immediate anxiety response." In children, they do not realize that their fear is irrational.

    Just because someone has a fear does not mean they have a phobia. Helpguide.org explains that 90 percent of 2 to 14 year old children have a fear, but many of them are considered normal. For example, for children between the ages of 0 and 2, it is normal for them to be afraid of being away from their parents, loud noises, large objects and strangers. Between ages 3 and 6, normal fears include strange noises, imaginary fears like ghosts and sleeping alone. Normal fears for 7 to 16 year olds include school performance, natural disasters, illness and injury. However, when those fears become irrational, such as the child refusing to leave the house because of the fear, it may be considered a phobia.

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    Types of Phobias

    One type of phobia is social phobia, also called social anxiety disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health states that in the United States, about 15 million adults will have social phobia in any given year. Social phobics fear situations where other people might critique them, for example speaking in public or gatherings where they might meet new people. People who have a social phobia may have a limited or generalized social phobia. With a limited social phobia, patients have an intense fear of only one situation, such as talking to people. With a generalized social phobia, patients have anxiety attacks when dealing with everyone who is not family. A social phobia can prevent people from functioning in social situations.

    People may have specific phobias, in which a certain item or situation triggers a panic attack. About 19.2 million adults in the United States have this particular phobia, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. When a person has a specific phobia, the source of anxiety can be one of many objects. For example, a person may have a phobia of an animal, such as a dog or a snake. Some people may have phobias about insects or spiders. Flying, heights, lightening and enclosed spaces can also be specific phobias. Other subjects that people have phobias of include germs, illness, death, storms, blood and medical procedures.

    Some people have a type of phobia called agoraphobia; about 1.8 million adults in the United States have this disorder without having co-morbid panic disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. With agoraphobia, people have a fear of having another panic attack. As a result, they avoid situations where they might have anxiety. These situations include crowded places, standing in line and traveling. Some agoraphobics may stay at home and not venture out.