Dealing with irrational fears

Most of us experience fear at various points in our lives, but the basis for this fear is usually justifiable. Anxiety for the safety of our children, fear of a potentially harmful or lethal situation, panic under pressure - while these feelings are not pleasant, they are easily explained. But why is it that, for some of us, these same feelings can be triggered by relatively harmless situations, creatures, or objects?

Phobia is a Greek word which literally means ‘fear'. These days it is commonly used to describe an ingrained and irrational fear a person has of a specific situation or ‘thing'. Phobias can affect our life to various degrees - for example, if you suffer from chiroptophobia (a fear of bats), it should be pretty easy to avoid these creatures in your everyday life. But a condition such as agoraphobia (a fear of open spaces) can place serious restrictions on a person's lifestyle.

Where do phobias come from?

What is it that causes phobias? Sometimes there is a simple explanation. It would be understandable if someone who was attacked by a dog as a child developed a fear of all dogs (cynophobia). Even extreme fears like agoraphobia or claustrophobia (a fear of small, enclosed spaces) can be traced back to traumatic events in a person's past. Some phobias can be ‘learned' from others. If a parent suffers from an irrational fear of spiders (arachnophobia), their child may develop the same fear through observing the parent's behaviour.

Some people may develop phobias as a subconscious way of avoiding a stressful or traumatic situation. ‘Social phobias' such as agoraphobia, glossophobia (a fear of speaking in public), or erotophobia (a fear of love or sex), may place extreme restrictions on a person's way of life, but they can also protect them from emotional or physical pain or feelings of shame or embarrassment. But hiding yourself away from risky situations is not a healthy way to live your life.

Phobias can also occur as symptoms of a mental disorder or condition, such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Even some diseases can trigger phobias as symptoms. For example, hydrophobia (a fear of water) is a common symptom of rabies.

Getting over a phobia

Most people with phobias can get on with their lives pretty easily, and do not suffer too much from having to avoid bats, or frogs, or whatever it is that triggers their fear. But more extreme phobias can stop a person from leading a healthy, happy, and socially active life. There may come a point in a person's life where their phobia must be faced and overcome - for example if a fear of flying (aviatophobia) is preventing them from going on the holiday of a lifetime or visiting a loved one.

Overcoming a phobia, especially an extreme phobia that has taken over a person's daily life, is not easy, but it can definitely be done. Some sufferers are brave enough to confront the cause of their fear head-on, exposing themselves to their phobia trigger in order to ‘build up a tolerance' to it. Because of the extreme feelings of terror and panic a phobia creates, this is a very difficult method, but it does work for some. Dealing with a phobia in this way can be life-changing in more ways than one, as it provides a boost to a person's self-confidence and can lead them to be more decisive and bold in other aspects of their life.

‘Flooding' is a technique where the phobia sufferer is exposed to their feared object, animal, or situation, in as large a quantity as possible, for a prolonged period of time. The theory behind this is that the mind and body can't keep up feelings of panic indefinitely. In fact, tests have found that these feelings generally abate after a maximum of 40 minutes. When the terror and anxiety subsides, the phobic person can face the cause of their fear, and in most cases come to realise they have nothing to be scared of. While this is an extreme way of dealing with a phobia, it has been proven to work for a lot of people.

Therapy is very effective for helping people to deal with their phobias. Techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy, neuro-linguistic programming, and hypnotherapy can help people to deal with the memories and emotions that have caused their phobias, which in turn helps them to overcome the phobia itself.

If you do suffer from a phobia, don't let it stop you from getting the most out of life. Having a phobia doesn't make you foolish, or cowardly, or crazy - in fact, many of us have an irrational fear of something. There are many ways to deal with a phobia, and many people you can turn to for help. If your fear is restricting your way of life, talk to your doctor - they can recommend experts who can help you to confront your fear.