Exploring Phobias

By Ahuva Radzyner, LGSW

It seems like phobias have been around forever.  You’ve probably heard of the common ones: Claustrophobia (fear of small spaces), Astraphobia (fear of thunder and lightning), Acrophobia (fear of heights), and Arachnophobia (fear of spiders).  You may not have heard of the less common ones: Agyrophobia (fear of crossing roads), Barophobia (fear of gravity), Bibliophobia (fear of books), and Porphyrophobia (fear of the color purple).  There are dozens of different phobias, but the common thread is how real the fear is for the individual.

If you have a phobia, maybe you’ve heard comments like these:

“How can you be scared of a spider? You are so much bigger than it!”

“Give me a break, what do you think will actually happen if you leave your house?” 

“Planes are a lot safer than cars, you know.  They rarely crash; get over it!” 

“Oh, my dog couldn’t hurt a fly, you don’t have to worry about her!” 

The people who say these things are almost always well-meaning; they honestly cannot grasp the extent or reality of your fear.  But know that your fears are real, and there are many others who can relate.

A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder, defined as “an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to” a thing or situation.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 10% of Americans have at least one phobia that elicits overwhelming feelings of anxiety such as dread, loss of control, fear of dying, sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, dizziness, or disorientation.

You may be able to identify the source of your phobia; a traumatic experience such as a dog bite when you were a child may result in Cynophobia, or fear of dogs.  If one of your parents suffered from a certain phobia, you might have it too, thanks to a learned response.  Having a  genetic predisposition to anxiety disorders can also make you more likely to develop a phobia.

Phobias tend to be separated into three different categories:  specific phobia which is the fear of things (like needles) or situations (like flying); social phobia which is the fear of being judged or embarrassing yourself in a social situation; and agoraphobia, fear of crowds or public spaces. Avoiding the thing or situation that you fear may seem like the logical solution, but it is often neither practical nor healthy to do so.

The good news is that effective treatment is available. If you have a phobia or you recognize these symptoms in a loved one, find a qualified therapist to walk you through the treatment.  Common treatments are:

  • Exposure Therapy: In this treatment, you will be exposed to your phobia until encountering that thing or situation no longer triggers the fear response.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): This therapy involves changing the way you think.  It identifies the thoughts that are anxiety provoking, and replaces them with more rational thoughts so that you can change your behavior.
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation Therapy: This calming technique involves learning to contract and relax each muscle group one at a time, working from your feet up to your head.

In some situations, medication can also help.  The important thing to remember is that if you are struggling with a phobia, you are not alone.  As soon as you are ready, reach out for help and begin the journey toward freedom.

Good luck!

Ahuva Radzyner, LGSW is a therapist at Jewish Community Services.

JCS provides a broad range of services that meet the diverse, multi-dimensional needs of individuals and families throughout Central Maryland.  We offer guidance and support when you are seeking solutions for emotional well-being, aging and caregiving, parenting, job seeking, employers and businesses, achieving financial stability, living with special needs, and preventing risky behaviors. To learn more, please visit our home page or call 410-466-9200. 


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