Specific Phobias

Specific Phobias

While it is natural for everyone to experience fear when they feel threatened or in danger, people who develop specific phobias experience an irrational and unrealistic sense of fear to a particular situation, place, or object. When individuals with specific phobias are confronted with the stimulus that invokes their fear, they react by experiencing an overwhelming level of distress and anxiety – causing them to take extreme precautionary measures of avoidance. This combination of anxiety and avoidance usually severely impedes their day to day activities and quality of life.

  • Fear of particular animals or insects (e.g. spiders, dogs, toads)
  • Situational fears (e.g. fear of being in enclosed spaces such as elevators or lifts, driving, going over bridges, or flying)
  • Environmental factors (e.g. fear of heights, storms, or water)
  • Fear of medical procedures or injury (e.g. blood tests, injections, or seeing blood)
  • Other phobias (e.g. fear of choking, fear of clowns, loud noises, or illness)
  • Having persistent and unrealistic fear(s) of a certain situation, object, or activity
  • Going to great lengths to avoid an instance where they may come into contact or be confronted with their fear
  • The level of distress and avoidance associated with their fear impacts their concentration and restricts their ability to manage their daily activities, social life, relationships, work, or study
  • Experiencing anticipatory anxiety about if and when they could be exposed to their phobia and avoiding places or situations that may be associated with it (eg: feeling nervous about going to the doctor for fear they will need to take a blood sample, or feeling nervous about going to the shopping centre for fear of having to use a public toilet).

Some of the common symptoms of anxiety associated with specific phobias include:

  • Nervous sweating
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Feeling shaky, dizzy, or nauseous
  • Hot or cold flushes
  • Racing catastrophic thoughts
  • Obsessive thinking
  • Lack of concentration to other tasks
  • Irritability

In some cases, individuals may experience panic attacks, where these physical symptoms of anxiety are intensified and become overbearing. Read more about panic attacks here.

Just like individuals with social phobia, adults with specific phobias are generally aware that their fear is irrational, yet when confronted with their feared stimulus, they experience the persistent physical bodily responses associated with panic and anxiety. However, the difference between social phobia and specific phobias, is that individuals with social phobia, hold an intense fear of being confronted with various social situations – compared to individuals with specific phobias, whose fears are generally limited to a specific situation or object.

  • Family history of anxiety disorders or other mental health issues
  • Experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event & developing a fear of the objects or situations of association (eg: being bitten by a spider and this leading to a phobia of spiders)
  • Being exposed to other peoples’ negative perceptions of a particular situation or object

Specific phobias have been suggested to affect around 11% of the Australian population, based on diagnosed cases alone. Individuals at any age can develop one or multiple specific phobias, and some may experience other anxiety disorders in union. Specific phobias in children are more common than other anxiety disorders, and because children and adolescence naturally have less exposure to the world than adults, they are usually unaware that their fears are irrational and disproportionate to reality.

The most successful and long lasting treatment for individuals with specific phobias, involves Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), guided with the support from an experienced psychologist in the area. The therapist works with the individual to help them identify their irrational thoughts (cognitions), that are causing their associated overbearing reactions (behaviours), in order to re-structure and replace them with logical and evidence based beliefs. A major component of CBT involves gradually exposing individuals’ to their phobia(s) until their irrational fears reduce and eventually diminish.

conversation with a therapist

The therapist also teaches them techniques on how to deal with their anxiety, to help them resume their daily activities to a more manageable level. Since many specific phobias develop during childhood or adolescence, if they are left untreated, their fears may become more engrained and harder to resolve as adults. It has been estimated that only around 20% of specific phobias will resolve themselves without the need for professional help, which is why it is critical to seek advice from a psychologist as soon as any of the symptoms as outlined above, are recognised.

Other helpful options that may assist alongside the psychotherapeutic component for treating specific phobias include:

  • Deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation techniques
  • Short term or intermittent use of medications, including antidepressants or Benzodiazepines, known for their sedative affect. Medication options should be considered with caution, and are usually recommended only to be taken for up to 2-3 weeks – or for intermittent useduring exposure therapy, to relieve the immediate effects of extremely anxiety provoking situations (eg: before flying in an aeroplane).

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Who we recommend

Dr Daphne Bryan

Clinical Psychologist