How do we distinguish the fear of the phobia of insects, the doctor or the plane?
Do dogs scare you? Don’t you go to the doctor in case you get stuck? Do you avoid going to the dentist? Do you dream of diving in the Maldives but are you terrified of the plane? Do you hide when there is a storm? Behind some of these fears, there may be a specific phobia that, if it produces anxiety and avoidance behaviours that affect the quality of life, may require professional help. However, most of them remain private because those who suffer from them know
that they are irrational.
Specific or simple phobias are a differentiated group of phobias with less impact on mental health than agoraphobia and social phobia, disorders that do imply severe limitations on personal development. Although they are also classified as anxiety disorders, most of the specific phobias are not harmful.
Although the basic definition is the same for all types of phobias, the differences between these specific phobias and agoraphobia overlap. “In specific phobia, there is only anxiety during the moment in which the person is exposed to the thing or situation that causes it, but as soon as that stimulus disappears, they already feel good. And if it does not directly interfere with a job or something very necessary, it will be adopted. However, in agoraphobia and social phobia, more persistent symptoms transcend a moment of exposure.
Is there a ‘multiphobic’ personality?
Some statistics show that 10% of the population suffers from a specific phobia, although the data overlap as there are people with various phobias. In general, they are individuals with very common personality characteristics, without this leading to the development of specific phobias. “However, they occur more in people with a tendency to worry a lot about things, to fear the negative consequences of any problem. It is what we call “harm avoidance”, a trait that all of us have more or less accentuated, but when it gets out of hand, it is already a phobia”.
There are different mechanisms by which a person develops a specific phobia. 15% have no clear cause, but in the remaining 85% per cent, some risk factors can be intuited or verified. Among them, a certain genetic weight without it being very decisive, but in cases of fear of blood and medical or surgical procedures, heritability in the first line affects 30 per cent of those who present this phobia. There are scientific clues to believe it: a study on twins brothers concludes that 46 per cent of monozygotic (identical) couples share a phobia. This psychiatrist indicates that the behavioural model, based on a bad experience, is the clearest in explaining phobias and affects up to 55 per cent of cases. “However, not all people develop arachnophobia after a spider bite, but a predisposition would be added to the factors already mentioned,” he clarifies.
In 25% of cases, phobias are attributed to so-called vicarious learning (the one that results from observing the behaviour of a close person), generally absorbed within the family. “If I see that my father or mother are afraid of something as a child, I can develop a phobia, and it is not so much because of my own threatening experience, but because I have seen it in others. But there is also a 5 per cent of phobias that do not involve having witnessed something that produces fear, but they tell you about it. If you are predisposed, it can happen when a painful episode is recounted to you in great detail.
In the research field of psychology and psychiatry, this type of specific phobia occupies a secondary place because, as they do not pose major health problems, they are hardly consulted. The ones that request the most psychological attention are usually aviophobia when the work situation requires it and nosophobics, especially when the person has been diagnosed with a disease that requires numerous medical procedures.
Is my phobia forever?
Specific phobias are generally treated by psychologists, although most people do not consult them unless they produce a marked interference in their work, family or social role. Pharmacological treatments only make sense in specific situations, such as boarding a plane in a panic: the professional can recommend an anxiolytic for that specific moment. Simple phobias are treated with psychological techniques, especially behavioural therapies that usually involve progressive exposure to the feared situation.
“These are therapies that cause anxiety to increase at first, to gradually decrease to a state of habituation and educate the natural alarm systems in our minds to activate fear,” the expert details. His goal is for the situation (the plane, the height) to stop being associated with that fear.
Professionals use many therapeutic strategies in this process, including virtual reality or “imagined exposure” (inducing one to think that dogs are approaching or the finger of an aeroplane), as well as in vivo exposure, when the person is directly exposed. There are variations such as flooding, a very intense exposure that is sometimes necessary, such as sitting the person with cynophobia in the middle of a large group of dogs, naturally always with the prior agreement of the patient. “It produces a lot of stress or anxiety, but in some cases, it is effective.