A phobia is an irrational, fearful anxiety response to a specific object or situation. Phobias are extremely common, in fact, about 10 percent of people in the U.S. experience phobias, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Stressful experiences and traumatic events during childhood can trigger the development can of specific phobias. Phobias can also be learnt by children from their surroundings, or even by a parent/household member. According to Mowrer (1947), the original learnt fear is required by classical conditioning (learning by association) and is then maintained by operant conditioning (learning by reinforcement). There are actually three main types of phobias:
- Specific phobia: phobia of an object, such as an animal, body part or situation such as flying, heights or injections.
- Social phobia: fear of a social situations or public speaking or using a public restroom.
- Agoraphobia: fear of being outside, especially in a public place. (these are generally the most dangerous and restricting)
Surprisingly, phobias are extremely treatable. According to psychologists, phobias are learnt via classical conditioning, hence they can be unlearned using the same process. It is based on the theory that it is impossible to simultaneously be in a state of relaxation and fear at the same time (reciprocal inhibition).
The main ways to overcome your fears are:
- “Systematic desensitisation”, also known as behavioural therapy, where the patient is gradually exposed to their fear with a therapist. The patient is first taught relaxation techniques such as mediation, breathing exercises and mental imagery, before being slowly exposed to the fear. This is the most common and effective method of treating phobias.
- “Flooding” is the immediate and direct exposure of the patient to the phobic object or situation, such as taking a person with agoraphobia into a shopping centre. Although this is highly effective and quicker than the alternatives, it does have many ethical issues, hence it is not used as commonly.
If you have a phobia that you think is directly impacting your day-to-day life, talk to someone about it!