A phobia is an irrational or excessive reaction to a fear. Phobias can cause panic or dread when the source of the fear is encountered. The fear could be of a place, object or situation. An important difference between general anxiety disorders and phobias, is that phobias are typically connected to the fear of something specific.

What are phobias?

Phobias can range in severity, and can be disabling. In some cases, while a person with a phobia may realise it is irrational, they feel unable to do anything about it. Phobias can interfere with professional life, school or personal life.

Types of phobia include: agoraphobia, which is a fear of places which you feel you can't escape from; social phobia, which is a social anxiety disorder; acrophobia, which is a fear of heights; claustrophobia, which is a fear of tight or enclosed spaces; glossophobia, also known as performance anxiety, which can involve a fear of public speaking or being in front of a crowd; dentophobia, a fear of going to the dentist; and aviophobia, as well as numerous other phobias.

Symptoms of phobias include; shortness of breath; a pounding heart; dry mouth; inability to speak; nausea; upset stomach; chest pain; trembling; increased blood pressure; sweating; a choking sensation; and a sense of 'doom' or dread.

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Causes of phobias

Phobias can be caused by both environmental and genetic factors. Distressing or traumatic events can lead to the development of a phobia. For example - nearly drowning, being bitten or hurt by an animal, heights, or confined spaces.

You may be at more risk of having a phobia if you have suffered traumatic brain injuries, you have an ongoing medical condition, you suffer from depression, or you have a substance abuse problem.

Diagnosing phobias

Specific phobias such as the types outlined on this page are usually diagnosed through a clinical interview, during which your doctor may ask questions about your symptoms, including their nature, frequency and severity. Your doctor may also look at your medical, social and psychiatric history.

Treatment of phobias

A key form of treatment for phobias, and the most commonly used, is cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT involves facilitating exposure to the source of the fear in a controlled and safe setting. The treatment can reduce anxiety and 'decondition' people from the phobia. CBT has the ability to identify and change negative thoughts, negative reactions to their phobic situation, and beliefs which are dysfunctional. There are now new CBT techniques that use virtual reality technology to enable exposure to the source of phobias in a safe manner.

In many cases, professional therapy can be combined with medication for an effective treatment path. Medications such as anti-anxiety medications and anti-depressants can help to ease physical and emotional reactions to specific fears.

If you feel that you have a phobia, it is important that you seek treatment. While phobias can be difficult to overcome, you should understand that with the right treatment it is possible to manage your fears more effectively, and lead a fulfilling life.