Mona is a veteran writer, educator, and coach. She is presently affiliated with Enrich Magazine and Pressenza
Eleanor has emetophobia, which is a fear of vomit. She is a work-from-home virtual assistant, which is convenient because she’s afraid to go outside.
Eleanor wasn’t always like this. She’s well-traveled, used to be very friendly, and often went clubbing with friends. But when she turned 20, she developed an intense fear of vomiting. Even short distances from home terrified her. She stopped riding the bus and limited her life to mostly staying inside her house.
Eleanor’s emetophobia started after she lost her job, but her illness wasn’t about losing a job or vomiting, it was in the way she let her fear cause her to live a closed-in life.
Fear vs. Phobia
One thing we must know is that fear is very different from phobia. You may fear a flying cockroach headed in your direction, but that is different from having a phobia of cockroaches.
A phobia involves overwhelming fear that can be suppressive. A phobia of cockroaches may involve doing everything to avoid the insect to the point that this preoccupation consumes a person. They might avoid walking at night because cockroaches are nocturnal.
In sum, a phobia is an over-enlarged, unreal, and unreasonable fear of something that is innocuous. If the phobia is extreme, the person will resort daily to measures that will help them avoid the thing that makes them so scared. This will inhibit their quality of life, and may even make it impossible for them to accomplish daily tasks of living.
Causes of phobia
Although not much is known about what causes phobias, there are some probabilities such as:
- An extremely bad first encounter with what one fears, whether it’s a circumstance or a thing. However, experts say phobias can also occur without a bad first encounter. Some people are simply predisposed to developing a phobia.
- Oftentimes a negative experience, such as almost drowning, exposure to extreme heights, or a fearful incident involving an animal or object can lead to a phobia. When exposed to your fear, you may have a panic attack, or feel drenched in high anxiety.
- Genetics and environment. What your parents fear, you can learn to fear, too. If someone in your family has anxiety, you are vulnerable to possibly developing a phobia.
- Brain function. Changes in brain functioning also play a role in phobias. Studies show that phobias are affected by serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a brain chemical that moderates mood. If one’s serotonin level is either higher or lower than normal levels, it will cause depression and anxiety. Phobias fall under the category of anxiety disorders.
- Enduring medical conditions. Health issues, especially traumatic brain injury, often lead to phobias. Drug abuse is also linked to phobias.
The National Institute of Mental Health says that phobia is an anxiety disorder. Eight percent of U.S. adults experience having it. Symptoms include:
- Dizziness and lightheadedness.
- Nausea, or an upset stomach.
- Unsteadiness in motion.
- High blood pressure.
- Heart palpitations, racing heart, or a pounding heart.
- Depersonalization, or the feeling that one isn’t real.
- Feeling like the world is unreal.
- Shortness of breath.
- Chest pain, and tightness.
- A feeling of choking.
- Dry mouth.
- Rapid talking, or incapable of talking
- Agitation, shaking, trembling
- The feeling that one is doomed and has no control
- Obsession with one’s phobia.
A phobia begins from age three to eight, or from ages 15 to 20, but rarely happens past 30. Phobias are treatable with medication and therapy. A person can have more than one phobia, and symptoms may be mild to extreme. In the US, some 19 million people have phobias.
Phobias can either be simple or complex. Simple phobias are more specific, like fearing a cat, a spider, or germs. Other phobias pertain to activity, like flying, riding over bridges, or going through tunnels.
Still, other examples of phobias are body phobias, fear of blood or injections, and sexual phobias such as a fear of performance, or fear of getting a sexually transmitted infection.
Complex phobias can undermine one’s daily life. Agoraphobia literally translates to “fear of everything”. People with agoraphobia often have other phobias too, such as monophobia, (fear of being alone), and claustrophobia (fear of closed spaces). A phobic situation can make a person have panic attacks. This is why they avoid locations or anything related to their fear. For example, people with agoraphobia avoid:
- Being alone whether at home, or outside.
- Crowded places.
- Riding a car, bus, or other vehicle.
- Taking an elevator.
Agoraphobics have difficulty going outdoors because a lot of places are full on a typical day like streets, stores, restaurants, malls, and churches.
There’s no singular reason why people get complex phobias. However, research suggests a possible mesh of reasons like family DNA, brain chemistry, and traumatic childhood.
Social phobia, another complex phobia, is the fear of being in social situations. The person avoids speaking in front of others, or at its extreme, is unable to do simple things like order food at a restaurant, answer a ringing telephone, meet up with friends, and other activities that threaten their self-isolation.
Fear of doctors
People who have phobias should see a doctor. However, what if someone has a fear of doctors? This phobia is called “iatrophobia”. In such a case, seeing a doctor can cause extreme anxiety or lead to a panic attack.
Oftentimes, a person with iatrophobia has no rational, realistic reason for this phobia. Again, it may be a blend of phobias that manifests when a person needs to see a doctor. Although it’s not unusual for normal people to fear a doctor, when it’s a phobia the fear becomes irrational and extreme, causing the following to occur:
- You become your own doctor, self-prescribing and researching your symptoms online so you can avoid consulting a professional doctor.
- Your appointment is just one month away, but every day you are obsessed with the fear of your doctor’s appointment, day in and day out. You can’t sleep, you can’t focus, or you cry because of your appointment.
- You continually reschedule doctor’s appointments. You don’t even get important vaccinations or necessary preventive healthcare.
- Sometimes the iatrophobic person also fears dentists, hospitals, and illnesses.
You can try the following if you are afraid to see your doctor:
- Break your fears into smaller pieces, and face one piece at a time. You can only overcome your phobia by facing it. Start with the easiest chunk and slowly and repeatedly do it until you feel safe and in control. Then go to the next easiest chunk. Overcome the inevitable anxiety and fear by repetition, until you think you are ready for the third chunk. As you complete this process, the phobia will have less power over you, and you will gain confidence and control.
- Listing. Write down all the things you fear because of your phobia. Again, break it down into pieces. If you fear flying, make this list:
- book your flight.
- Pack your suitcase.
- Drive to the airport. Watch planes take off and land.
- Go through security.
- Board the plane.
- Listen to the flight attendant as she goes through safety instructions.
- Ride the plane until it lands.
Arrange the items in your list from least scary to most scary. Start with the first step, and stay with it until you feel your anxiety has decreased sufficiently. The longer you expose yourself to your fear, the more you will gain confidence and be less afraid. Then go to the next step in your list and follow the same process. If a step seems too hard, break it into smaller pieces. As you go through the motions, think about your goal. The longer you face your fears, the more used to it you will become, and you’ll feel less anxious.
- Learn to calm down quickly. Regularly do simple deep breathing exercises, when you’re anxious. The tendency when one is anxious is to have fast shallow breaths. To oppose this, breathe deeply from your abdomen. Do this practice when you’re calm and relaxed. As you gain familiarity with the exercise, you will become more adept at calming yourself down.
- Comfortably sit straight-backed, and lay one hand on your chest, and the other hand on your tummy.
- Slowly inhale through your nose. Your stomach should rise, and your chest should only move a little. Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale through your mouth to a count of eight. Push out as much air as you can while contracting the muscles of your abdomen. Your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your chest should only move a little.
- Repeat the cycle until you feel relaxed and centered.
Do this for five minutes, twice a day. When you’ve mastered the technique, you can use it when facing your phobia.
Experience of Phobia
When to seek professional help
You need professional help when you are not leading a normal life. You need treatment if:
- You know your phobia is disproportionate to what you fear.
- You can’t navigate normal situations and events that most people enjoy.
- You have intense, disabling bouts of anxiety and panic.
- You always feel distressed.
- You’ve had the phobia for at least six months.
Complex phobias are treated with medication to address the anxiety and depression that underlie your phobia. A psychologist will help you process your phobia and see it in context. This will empower you to lead a normal life.
On the lighter side
Some phobias are strange, like caligynephobia, which is the fear of beautiful women, and anatidaephobia, which is the fear that a duck is watching you all the time, no matter where you are. And there is phobophobia, the fear of getting a phobia. There is also a 15-syllable phobia called hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, which is a fear of long words.
That duck is everywhere
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