Most of us have some sort of irrational fear that evokes anxiety. Personally, I hate needles with the fire of a thousand suns and dread getting blood drawn at the doctor way more than the average person. Although it's decidedly unpleasant at the time, I only need to deal with needles about twice a year, so my fear doesn't interfere with my daily life — and the same is true for the majority of others who are only confronted with their fears on rare occasions.
But the 12.5 percent of American adults who suffer from a specific phobia at some point during their lives experience impairment that ranges from mild to severe — and it can have a profound impact on their health.
So, what exactly are we afraid of?
Toronto-based mental health strategist Mark Henick tells SheKnows that contrary to common belief, agoraphobia isn't specifically a fear of public spaces or leaving the house.
"It's actually a fear of fear. That is, it's a fear of having a panic attack in a public place, which may then cause you to make a scene or become embarrassed," he explains. "They fear feeling trapped, confined, helpless or lost. It's this fear that's the underlying problem." As a coping mechanism, people with agoraphobia tend to avoid public places — and in the most serious cases, they won't leave their houses even to get food or handle other basic needs.
Although it's not currently classified as a phobia, orthosomnia is also an anxiety-based disorder. Those affected become so preoccupied with the goal of getting a "perfect" night of sleep their stress and anxiety around the issue make it harder to fall asleep. Kathy Brown, a licensed professional counselor, tells SheKnows that because orthosomnia hasn't received much attention until recently, it may be labeled as a phobia upon further review and research.
"It isn't classified as a phobia according to the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, whose fifth edition was published in 2013. It’s come to the attention of the public rather recently and will possibly be included in a future edition," Brown says. However, she notes that concern about not getting enough sleep is common among people who have generalized anxiety disorder or other anxiety disorders.
Other serious phobias that can impact your health include mysophobia (fear of germs), vehophobia (fear of driving), claustrophobia (intense fear of closed spaces), social phobias, astrophobia (fear of thunder and lightning) and aerophobia (fear of flying).
"Over time, if a phobia is untreated, it can significantly impact that individual's level of functioning in multiple areas of their lives," Dr. Danielle Forshee, a psychologist, tells SheKnows, noting that certain phobias can ultimately lead to agoraphobia as people search for ways to avoid confronting other phobias, such as germs, social embarrassment or driving.
In addition to the impact on a person's mental health, phobias can also cause physical complications. Forshee explains that people with severe phobias experience "significant anxiety in the presence of that stimulus," and this often occurs before they're exposed to the stimulus. "Symptoms of anxiety in these situations include nausea, sweating, shaking or trembling, difficulty catching your breath, dizziness and increased heart rate," she says.
Brown says people with phobias and anxiety disorders are more likely to resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms in an effort to quell their anxiety. "[They're] more likely to smoke, abuse alcohol and prescription or street drugs than people who don’t have a mental disorder," Brown explains. "They’re more subject to insomnia too, and insufficient sleep makes people more vulnerable to stroke, obesity and diabetes."
Henick, Forshee and Brown all tell SheKnows that cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy (gradually introducing the patient to the anxiety source or its context in a safe situation) are effective treatment methods. However, Brown says many people with phobias don't get the treatment they need.
"Someone who’s phobic about social situations doesn’t want to put themselves in the position to be judged by a therapist, for example," she explains. "Someone with fear of driving doesn’t want to get in the car and go to the clinic." When phobias go untreated, a person's mental health deteriorates further.
No one deserves to live a life that's controlled by fear. Although it's easier said than done, treatment can greatly improve a person's quality of life. It's natural to have anxiety about going to a therapist, but having a trusted friend or family member drive you to your appointment and wait outside to offer support afterward can make the process more manageable.
And the bottom line is that phobias don't simply go away on their own, so treatment is essential. "Without treatment, people’s lives tend to get smaller and smaller as they avoid the things that scare them instead of challenging themselves to move beyond their comfort zone," Brown says.
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