Is a phobia restricting your life?

Lisa Henson, Assistant Clinical Lead and Cognitive Behavioural Therapist at Derwent Rural Counselling Service, looks at phobias.

That spider in the bath may seem harmless; going out shopping may be part of your normal day or having an injection feels like an inconvenient scratch, but to some people with a phobia, all of these simple situations can create a severe reaction.

A phobia is an overwhelming and debilitating fear of an object, place, situation, feeling or animal and can cause an exaggerated or unrealistic sense of danger about a situation or object.

A severe phobia can mean restrictions to everyday life with a person avoiding situations where contact with the trigger is present and creating high levels of anxiety.

Phobia’s are a type of anxiety disorder, symptoms of which, can cause unsteadiness, dizziness and light-headedness, nausea, sweating, increased heart rate or palpitations, shortness of breath and trembling or shaking at the presence of or sometimes even the thought, of the feared situation or object.

Phobias can be divided into two main categories: specific or simple phobias and complex phobias.

Specific or simple phobias centre around a particular object, animal, situation or activity. They often develop during childhood or adolescence and may become less severe as you get older.

Some examples of simple phobias include the fear of dogs, spiders, snakes or rodents, heights, deep water and germs, visiting the dentist or flying; and blood, vomit or having injections.

Complex phobias can be more disabling, often developing during adulthood and commonly associated with a deep-rooted fear or anxiety about a particular situation or circumstance.

Agoraphobia and social phobia are the two most common complex phobias. Agoraphobia sufferers feel anxious about being in a place or situation where escaping, may be difficult or embarrassing. This can result in an intense fear of having a panic attack. Agoraphobia can develop after experiencing a panic attack in a certain situation, this situation is then avoided as a way of managing the fear, of a panic attack happening again. Often people with Agoraphobia will avoid being alone, crowded places and public transport. In severe cases, sufferers can have difficulty leaving their house. Avoidance, as a way of managing anxiety may be helpful in the short term but in the long term can have significant and severely detrimental impact on a person’s life.

Social phobia also known as social anxiety disorder, is where sufferers have feelings of fear and anxiety centred around social situations, they fear being judged negatively by others. In severe cases, this can become debilitating and may prevent you from carrying out everyday activities, such as going to supermarkets, eating out, meeting friends and speaking in public.

Phobias don’t have a single cause, but NHS research claims there are a number of associated factors. A phobia may be associated with a particular incident or trauma, learned responses from a parent or sibling and genetics may even play a role with evidence to suggest that some people are born with a tendency to be more anxious than others.

Many people choose to live with a phobia, avoiding the object or situation they are afraid of. However, this can make the situation worse.

Phobias aren’t usually formally diagnosed. Most people with a phobia are fully aware of the problem however.

Here at DRCS we work with people with phobias, referred to us by themselves or from their GP.

Almost all phobias can be successfully treated and cured. Gradual exposure (desensitisation or self-exposure therapy with a professional or self help programme) to the item or situation causing fear and anxiety can cure simple phobias.

For example, if you have a fear of spiders, we may start by asking you to read about spiders. We may later show you a picture of a spider and then show you some spiders. The final step may be for you to hold a spider. All this would be done slowly at your own pace with the full support of an experienced therapist.

Exposure therapy gradually increases the level of exposure to the fear, meaning a person gains control over their phobia. As the treatment progresses, they begin to feel less anxious about the phobia.

Treating complex phobias with talking therapies such as counselling, psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness, often takes longer but can be extremely successful in teaching skills to manage anxiety in the long term and therefore improve quality of life.

CBT changes the way people think and behave by developing practical ways of dealing with phobias.

It is based on the model that thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and actions are interconnected, and that negative thoughts and feelings can trap you in a vicious cycle.

Overwhelming problems can be dealt with in a more positive way by breaking them down into smaller parts with a change in negative patterns helping you to improve the way you feel.

Unlike some other talking treatments, CBT deals with your current problems, rather than focusing on issues from your past. It looks for practical ways to improve your state of mind on a daily basis.

If you have a phobia that you would like some help with or for further information on the treatment of phobias please contact DRCS on 0800 047 6861.

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