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Panic DisorderThe Psychology Service

What is a Phobia?

A Phobia is an intense fear and avoidance of a specific situation. Typical Phobias include leaving the home, (known as Agoraphobia), crowded places, hospitals, thunder, the sight of blood, injections, spiders, snakes, heights, social situations and enclosed spaces (known as Claustrophobia). The list is literally endless, as any situation can become the focus of a Phobia. What distinguishes a Phobia from a normal fear is that it is irrational, and far out of proportion to any actual danger that might be involved. It also causes the sufferer problems in their everyday life, for example by getting in the way of their work or social life.

Phobias can arise as a symptom of other conditions such as Depression or Panic Disorder. They can be learned in childhood by observing a parent with similar fears. They also often occur after a traumatic event, such as a car accident or a violent attack, after which the person may become afraid for example to drive or to walk out alone.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptoms of a Phobia are intense anxiety, and avoidance of the feared situation. The anxiety is usually both mental and physical. Mental symptoms can include catastrophic thoughts and worries about what might happen, for example that they might collapse and die, make a fool of themselves, or go mad. Physical symptom can include a racing heart, breathlessness, sweating and muscular tension. Some people experience Panic Attacks in their phobic situation.

The feared situation is most often totally or partially avoided, and people will go out of their way, and often suffer great inconvenience, in order to avoid a phobic situation. However, some people do persist in going into the situation they fear, and endure it with a sense of dread.

How long does it last?

Some Phobias can be quite short lived, and go on for only a few months, for example while the person is suffering from an episode of Depression, or in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event. However, many Phobias can be very last long-lasting, not infrequently lasting for life. If the person persists in avoiding the feared situation, then the Phobia is much more likely to be prolonged than if they try to face it.

What is the treatment?

CBT has been used very successfully in the treatment of Phobias. The treatment should include use of techniques to control anxious thoughts ("cognitions") as well as training in controlling the physical symptoms of anxiety, and carefully graded exposure to the feared situation.

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