Phobias are persistent, irrational fears of certain objects or situations. Phobias occur in several forms; the fear associated with a phobia can focus on a particular object (specific phobia) or be a fear of embarrassment in a public setting (social phobia). People who have phobias are often so overwhelmed by their anxiety that they avoid the feared objects or situations. Specific phobias involve a fear of an object or situation, such as small animals, snakes, closed-in spaces, or flying in an airplane. Social phobia is the fear of being humiliated in a social setting, such as when meeting new people, giving a speech, or talking to the boss. Most people experience these fears with mild to moderate intensity, and the fear passes. For people with social phobia, however, the fear is extremely intrusive and can disrupt normal life, interfering with work or social relationships in varying degrees of severity.
Fortunately, through research supported by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), effective treatments have been developed to help people with phobias.
How Common Are Phobias?
- Approximately 4 to 5% of the U.S. population has one or more clinically significant phobias in a given year.
- Specific phobias occur in people of all ages. The average age of onset for social phobia is between 15 and 20 years of age, although it can often begin in childhood.
What Causes Phobias?
Traumatic events often trigger the development of specific phobias, which are slightly more prevalent in women than men. Research shows that social phobia may have a hereditary component and occurs in women and men in equal proportions. However, men may seek treatment for social phobia more frequently than women.
What Treatments Are Available for Phobias?
Social phobia can be effectively treated with medications including, MAOIs, SSRIs, and high potency benzodiazepines. People with a specific form of social phobia called performance phobia have been helped by drugs called beta blockers. There is no proven drug treatment for specific phobias, but certain medications may help reduce symptoms of anxiety before one faces a phobic situation. A type of cognitive-behavioral therapy known as “exposure therapy” is also a very useful treatment for phobias. It involves helping patients become gradually more comfortable with situations that frighten them. Relaxation and breathing techniques are also helpful.
Can People with Phobias Also Have Other Physical and Emotional Illnesses?
People with phobias, particularly social phobia, may also have problems with substance abuse. Many people with social or a specific phobia become so anxious that they experience panic attacks, which are intense and unexpected bursts of terror accompanied by physical symptoms. As more situational panic attacks occur, people with phobias may take extreme measures to avoid situations where they fear another attack might happen or where help would not be immediately available. This avoidance, similar to that in many panic disorder patients, may eventually develop into agoraphobia, an inability to go beyond known and safe surroundings because of intense fear and anxiety. Appropriate diagnosis and treatment of other disorders are important to successful treatment of phobias.