How to face a phobia

Posted on 4 February 2016

If the mere thought of a snake or being trapped in an elevator sends your heart racing, you may have a phobia. However, phobias are more than just being afraid. We asked psychiatrist Dr Irvine Eidelman, who has worked in private practice at Mediclinic Constantiaberg, to define what a phobia is, how it works and how to overcome it.

What is a phobia?
Mental illnesses and complaints like phobias are classified by the DSM – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association. The DSM is updated regularly for use by psychiatrists and classifies a phobia roughly as follows:

A phobia is an intense fear or anxiety in the presence of a particular object or in a particular situation. People who are phobic often realise the ridiculousness of their fears, but can’t control it. This embarrasses them terribly, despite their insights.

What are some common and interesting phobias?
Agoraphobia: fear of open spaces
Claustrophobia: fear of confined spaces
Acrophobia: fear of heights
Cynophobia: fear of dogs
Ailurophobia: fear of cats
Mysophobia: fear of dirt and germs
Pyrophobia: fear of fire
Hydrophobia: fear of water

So you have a phobia, so what?
The hallmark of any phobia is avoidance behaviour. If you have mysophobia, for instance, you will avoid exposure to public places or eating in restaurants. Not being able to use public ablutions and transport or celebrate a friend’s birthday dinner out will result in a high level of dysfunction in your life that needs to be addressed.

How do you address a phobia?
If you or someone you know has a phobia, don’t suggest ‘pulling yourself together’. That kind of attitude is alienating and futile. Rather adopt a high level of empathy and support for yourself or the sufferer and ensure you get professional help from a psychologist or psychiatrist who will conduct a full mental state and physical examination. It’s important to rule out any physical conditions that could be exacerbating the phobia and to identify any co-morbid conditions that often exist alongside phobias, such as depression and anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, paranoia, substance abuse or hypochondriasis.

Once diagnosed, a medical professional specialising in psychiatry or psychology will be able to offer therapy and/or medication to support and treat patients with phobias.

Who gets phobias?

Most often, it’s women in their early 20s who present with phobias. In the United States, 6.7% of men have phobias compared to 15.7% of women.

Why do phobias develop?
There are many theories, but no foregone conclusions. Freud, the father of psychiatry, hypothesised that a phobia could be a form of displaced fear. He penned this theory after treating a boy named Hans who had equinophobia (fear of horses). Freud believed Hans’s fear of horses was a displaced fear of his own father.

Published in Healthy Life

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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