What are specific phobias?
Specific phobias are an overwhelming and unreasonable fear of objects or situations that pose little real danger but provoke anxiety and avoidance. Unlike the brief anxiety you may feel when giving a speech or taking a test, specific phobias are long lasting, cause intense physical and psychological reactions, and can affect your ability to function normally at work, at school or in social settings.
Specific phobias are among the most common anxiety disorders, and not all phobias need treatment. But if a specific phobia affects your daily life, several therapies are available that can help you work through and overcome your fears — often permanently.
A specific phobia involves an intense, persistent fear of a specific object or situation that’s out of proportion to the actual risk. There are many types of phobias, and it’s not unusual to experience a specific phobia about more than one object or situation. Specific phobias can also occur along with other types of anxiety disorders. Common categories of specific phobias are a fear of:
– Situations, such as airplanes, enclosed spaces or going to school
– Nature, such as thunderstorms or heights
– Animals or insects, such as dogs or spiders
– Blood, injection or injury, such as needles, accidents or medical procedures
– Others, such as choking, vomiting, loud noises or clowns
Types of reactions
Each specific phobia is referred to by its own term. Examples of more common terms include acrophobia for the fear of heights and claustrophobia for the fear of confined spaces. No matter what specific phobia you have, it’s likely to produce these types of reactions:
– An immediate feeling of intense fear, anxiety and panic when exposed to or even thinking about the source of your fear
– Awareness that your fears are unreasonable or exaggerated but feeling powerless to control them
– Worsening anxiety as the situation or object gets closer to you in time or physical proximity
– Doing everything possible to avoid the object or situation or enduring it with intense anxiety or fear
– Difficulty functioning normally because of your fear
– Physical reactions and sensations, including sweating, rapid heartbeat, tight chest or difficulty breathing
– Feeling nauseated, dizzy or fainting around blood or injuries
– In children, possibly tantrums, clinging, crying, or refusing to leave a parent’s side or approach their fear
– Allow yourself to sit with your fear for 2-3 minutes at a time. Breathe with it and say, “It’s okay. It feels lousy but emotions are like the ocean—the waves ebb and flow.” Have something nurturing planned immediately after your 2-3 minute sitting period is completed: Call the good friend waiting to hear from you; immerse yourself in an activity you know is enjoyable and engrossing.
– Write down the things you are grateful for. Look at the list when you feel you’re in a bad place. Add to the list.
– Remind yourself that your anxiety is a storehouse of wisdom. Write a letter, “Dear Anxiety, I am no longer intimidated by you. What can you teach me?”
– Exercise. Exercise can refocus you (your mind can only focus on one thing at a time). Whether you go on a short walk, head to a boxing gym for an all-out sweat session, or turn on a 15-minute yoga video at home, exercise is good for you and it will ground you and help you feel more capable.
– Use humor to deflate your worst fears. For instance, what are some ridiculous worst-case scenarios that might happen if you accept an invitation to deliver a speech to a crowd of 500 people? I might pee in my pants at the podium, I will be arrested for giving the worst speech in history, My first boyfriend (girlfriend) will be in the audience and heckle me.
– Appreciate your courage. Doreen would tell herself during difficult times, “Every time I don’t allow fear to keep me from doing something that scares me, I am making myself stronger and less likely to let the next fear attack stop me.”