Phobias

You may have heard of the concept of phobias. Many people have phobias. A few common examples are arachnophobia, a phobia of spiders and thalassophobia, a phobia of deep water. Or here’s an example you may be familiar with claustrophobia, the fear of confined, enclosed spaces. Whether or not these fears are justified makes them a phobia.

Phobias Phobias

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Contents
Table of contents

    Phobias, content warning detailing sensitivity for readers, StudySmarter

    • First, we will establish the phobias meaning.
    • Then, we will look at the phobia symptoms.
    • Next, we will list several types of phobias.
    • We will look at social phobias individually.
    • Finally, we will explore the phobia treatment.

    Phobias Meaning

    Sometimes we joke about having a phobia of something that we don’t like or that scares us, but a phobia has a specific definition in psychology.

    A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder. It is a persistent and irrational fear disproportionate to the real danger. The anticipation or presence of an object can cause fear.

    According to the DSM, Phobias are characterised by the following:
    1. Phobias are significantly prolonged reactions of fear to an object or situation.

    2. They last for more than six months.

    3. They induce a fear response (anxiety) when confronted by the phobia.

    4. The fear response is not proportional to the danger posed by the object of fear.

    5. It causes individuals to go out of their way to avoid the object of fear, significantly disrupting their ability to go about their lives.

    Phobias tend to interfere in your daily life, unlike normal fear. The fear is persistent; even if logically no threat exists, it can induce panic attacks, and the individual feels powerless to control the fear.

    Phobias large spider in a forest StudySmarterFig. 1 - Spiders are a common phobia.

    Phobia Symptoms

    Phobia symptoms vary in that they can be cognitive, behavioural, physical, or emotional.

    • Cognitive symptoms include an inability to focus on anything else, as anxiety consumes the thoughts and the person focuses on the object of fear.

    • Behavioural symptoms include altogether avoiding the source of the phobia (such as refusing to attend social events, going outside, and being restless if they are forced into these scenarios).

    • Physical symptoms include anxiety-like symptoms, such as fight-or-flight responses upon confrontation with the feared object, an increased heart rate and sweating.

    • Emotional symptoms include fear, hopelessness, dread, and anything anxiety-like.

    Phobia and Fear Differences

    Fear is a protective mechanism against any danger in the environment. Fear is healthy and normal in moderation when appropriate to the scenario. It has an active period that lasts until the dangerous stimuli pass. A phobia is a persistent, irrational fear that produces an intense reaction to an object or situation.

    Some small children have a fear of loud thunderstorms. Usually, the child will gradually overcome this fear as they grow up and learn the facts about thunderstorms. A girl with a phobia of thunderstorms cannot go to school because there is a thunderstorm forecast for that day.

    Phobias: Examples

    Let’s consider the following examples of phobias:

    Anna is 23 years old and has had a phobia of balloons since she was 12. A balloon popped near her ear, and now loud noises give her severe anxiety. She avoids going to events where balloons might be present.

    Hania is 18 years old, and she has a phobia of spiders. She saw her mother screaming and crying as a spider fell on her during her pre-teens. Even the mere sight of a spider gives her anxiety, and she immediately leaves that site.

    Ella has a social phobia. She was bullied in her childhood, and now she avoids socialising. Even the thought of eating in front of a group of people gives her a severe anxiety attack.

    Each example illustrates a different type of phobia and how this phobia developed from single or multiple instances.

    Phobias: Causes

    Behavioural and biological approaches are used to explain the phobia causes.

    The Behavioural Approach to Phobias

    The two-process model by Mowrer (1947) suggests that phobias are learned by classical conditioning and maintained by operant conditioning. Classical conditioning describes the association of a previously neutral stimulus with an unpleasant emotion. The model states that phobias are sustained through reinforcement behaviour.

    A cat scratches a child, who then associates the feeling of pain with the cat. The cat was a neutral stimulus, but after scratching the child, the child associated it with pain leading to associating it with a fear response.

    A child who has learned the fear of cats in the previous example would change his path whenever he sees a cat lurking around. In short, the child will avoid any situation involving cats, feeding their phobia for longer.

    The behavioural approach has its critics. It doesn’t explain how people who have not had a traumatic experience can still have a phobia of something, e.g. snakes.

    A famous psychology experiment of classical conditioning is that of Watson and Rayner (1920). It is known as the ‘Little Albert experiment’. When Little Albert was 11 months old, Watson and Raynor tried to induce a phobia of white rats.

    At the start, Albert is neutral when shown a rat. They found out Albert was scared of the loud noise of a hammer hit against a steel bar. Thus, they started showing Albert the rat paired with the sound of a hammer against a steel bar.

    After several sessions, he was scared when he saw the rat alone and would cry and try to crawl away. This fear of the white rat was also generalised to similar things, such as a dog, fur coat, and a Santa mask.

    Phobias small snake in a person’s hands StudySmarterFig. 2 - Many people often confuse fear responses with phobias.

    The Biological Approach to Phobias

    As opposed to the behavioural explanation, the biological approach outlines that humans have a genetic susceptibility to develop fears of specific situations or objects, such as fear of the dark or heights. This is to ensure survival, as fear of these things is grounded in reality falling from a significant height risks injury, and the dark is dangerous as we cannot see what lurks in it.

    As Seligman (1970) suggests, humans have a biological tendency to develop certain phobias as they are adaptive in human history.

    Humans who have stayed away from snakes are more likely to survive and are more likely to pass it on in their genes than others who did not.

    Ohman et al. (1975) showed that people have a tendency, or evolutionarily prepared learning, to develop phobias to relevant stimuli. They showed participants fear-relevant stimuli (snakes) or irrelevant (houses or faces). The stimuli were paired with electric shocks. Learned responses to the irrelevant stimuli (houses and faces) disappeared but not with the relevant stimuli (snakes), showing a biological basis for fear-relevant phobias.

    Cook et al. (1985) demonstrated that observational learning could also instil phobias. They had ten lab-reared rhesus monkeys watch two rhesus monkeys in the wild who strongly feared snakes. The lab-reared monkeys at the start had no fear of snakes, but they developed a fear after watching the monkeys in the wild.

    Types of Phobia

    There are several types of phobia the DSM classifies fear into; these are the following:

    • Specific phobias.

    • Agoraphobia.

    • Social phobia (social anxiety disorder).

    Objects in the environment can cause extreme anxiety, for example, ophidiophobia (fear of snakes). As the name suggests, specific phobias are relative to a particular thing.

    There are four different types of specific phobias, i.e. injury, natural, situational and animal phobias.

    An example of injury phobia is hematophobia, anxiety when seeing blood.

    An example of a natural phobia is the fear of water (hydrophobia).

    A real-time situation causes a situational phobia, for example, fear of flying (or aerophobia).

    An example of an animal phobia is arachnophobia, the fear of spiders.

    Agoraphobia is the fear of open spaces or being unable to escape to find help. Victims with agoraphobia may experience panic attacks in open spaces, making them feel more vulnerable outside due to the uncertainty of enclosed spaces.

    Such people would prefer to stay housebound because of their avoidance behaviour.

    Social Phobia

    Social phobia is when someone experiences high anxiety levels when faced with a social gathering or situation. This anxiety can cause the person to perform poorly when in front of people, for example, while making a presentation. Social phobias consist of three further types as follows:

    As its name suggests, performance phobia occurs when performing in front of people, for example, solving a maths question on the teacher’s board.

    Interaction phobia is when Interactions or mixing with people may cause severe anxiety, for example, while answering interview questions for a prospective job.

    A generalised phobia is a generalised anxiety people around you cause, especially in a large group or a crowd.

    Specific or simple objects in the environment can cause extreme anxiety, such as ophidiophobia (fear of snakes). Ophidiophobia is one of the most common forms of phobias. Simple phobias characterise four other types.

    Phobias Treatment

    One very effective type of phobias treatment commonly used is exposure therapy.

    Exposure therapy: a behavioural treatment for anxiety disorders in which the patient is asked to expose themselves to their anxiety (or, in this case, their fears).

    Health providers will administer exposure therapy using three different approaches: systematic desensitisation, flooding, and hierarchies.

    Phobias Treatment: Systematic Desensitisation (SD)

    Systematic desensitisation was developed in the 1950s. It relies on the idea that two opposites cannot coexist together, like anxiety and relaxation. Systematic desensitisation (SD) is when the patient and their healthcare provider work together to design small steps towards facing that person’s fear by pairing fear objects with relaxation techniques.

    The patient and their healthcare provider work together to design small steps towards facing that person’s fear by pairing fear objects with relaxation techniques. The goal is for the patient to begin to associate these fear objects with relaxation so that facing them becomes more manageable.

    If a patient is afraid of heights, their therapist may have them begin by watching videos of people on rollercoasters while practising relaxation techniques such as deep breathing.

    Phobias Treatment: Hierarchies and Flooding

    The following approach stems from systematic desensitisation. A therapist may ask the patient to create a hierarchy of their fear. In other words, they create a ranking list with their biggest fear at the bottom and smallest fear at the top.

    They are then asked to begin facing these fear objects starting with the mildly difficult exposures. The idea is for them to progress slowly to the more difficult exposures.

    On the other hand, flooding uses a person’s fear hierarchy in the opposite way -- the patient is asked to face their fear, starting with their most difficult exposure.

    If someone is afraid of snakes, they may be asked to walk into the snake exhibit at the zoo.

    Flooding, if done right, can be very effective in treating phobias. However, healthcare providers must tread carefully when using this approach as it can be traumatic or compromising for their patients.

    Phobias - Key Takeaways

    • Fear is a protective mechanism that saves us from danger, whereas phobias are anxiety disorders, with irrational and persistent fear that interferes with your daily life.
    • According to the two-process model by Mowrer, phobias are learned by classical conditioning and maintained by operant conditioning.
    • According to the biological approach, humans have a genetic tendency to fear certain situations and objects, increasing their chances of survival.
    • There are three types of phobias: social phobia (fear of social gatherings/situations), simple phobia (fear of specific objects) and agoraphobia (fear of open spaces).
    • Health providers will administer exposure therapy using three different approaches: systematic desensitisation, flooding, and hierarchies.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Phobias

    What are phobias?

    Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder. It is a persistent and irrational fear that is disproportionate to the real danger. It can be caused by anticipation or the mere presence of an object or situation. 

    What causes phobias in psychology?

    In psychology, phobias can be caused by two main approaches: behavioural and biological approaches. 

    How many phobias are there?

    There are many types of phobias. They fall within these three major categories: social phobia, simple or specific phobia, and agoraphobia.

    How is fear different from phobia?

    Phobias tend to intervene in your daily life, unlike normal fear. The fear is persistent, even if you know that, factually, it does not exist. The fear is intense and irrational and can also induce panic attacks. 

    What are the symptoms of phobia?

    Phobia symptoms usually fall into the cognitive, behavioural, physical, and emotional categories.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    How long do phobias have to last to meet the diagnostic criteria?

    Phobias can trigger a physiological fight-or-flight response.

    What treatment approach is informed by the behavioural explanation of phobias?

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