By Isabel Rosales, M.D., psychiatry, Providence Medical Group-Newberg
The pounding heart. The shaking, hyperventilating, cold-blooded panic. All this, over a small, garden-variety spider?
That’s the thing about phobias: They’re not rational. The extreme fear that a phobic person experiences far outweighs the actual danger that the feared object, situation or activity presents. A little unease with spiders, for example, is not unusual. But a fear so intense that it causes you to panic, feel faint or avoid going outdoors entirely may be classified as a phobia.
Phobias are much more common than you might have thought. It’s estimated that about five out of 100 people suffer from phobias focused on everything from spiders and snakes to heights, elevators, social situations and the sight of blood. The exact prevalence, however, is hard to confirm, because so many people suffer in silence, too embarrassed – or afraid – to seek treatment.
And that’s what I want to share: If persistent, unreasonably intense fear of a specific thing or situation is affecting your life, treatment really can help. With professional support, you could learn to put your crippling fears to rest.
I do not use the word “crippling” lightly. Phobias can be much more than an inconvenience. They can prevent people from enjoying a full and happy life by affecting their ability to function in important areas of their life. The person with arachnophobia – fear of spiders – might be emotionally unable to bear going outdoors, for example, missing all of the pleasures and benefits of gardening and outdoor recreation. Someone with aviophobia – fear of flying – might limit professional opportunities by refusing to travel. Social phobias can inhibit social lives, limit opportunities for educational and professional advancement, and take a serious toll on personal relationships.
Is your fear controlling you?
Avoiding the object of fear is one way to live with a phobia, but eventually, a situation that cannot be avoided is bound to arise. If you have claustrophobia – a fear of enclosed spaces – you may learn to avoid airplanes and elevators, and to sit near an open door in meetings and classrooms, but eventually, someone is going to close a door. Getting treatment can help you learn how to control the fear – and just as importantly, the fear of the fear.
Not sure if your situation warrants professional help? Take a personal inventory:
- Is your fear affecting your relationships?
- Has it limited you in your education?
- Has it had an impact on your job?
- Is it affecting your health?
If any of these areas is suffering, it’s important to see a doctor or mental health professional for an evaluation. The first objective is to rule out other disorders that may be causing your anxiety. If a phobia is diagnosed, a mental health provider can explain treatment options that can help you get your fears under control.
Taking control – with help and support
Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals with training in phobias can help people make great strides toward relieving their fear. Our aim is to offer supportive and nonjudgmental care that helps people learn to minimize symptoms and manage their disorder, like any other chronic medical condition.
Treatment usually involves gradually and gently increasing your exposure to whatever it is that you fear. This is done in a very supportive, controlled setting to help you build tolerance to the object of your phobia. You’ll learn techniques to help calm and relax yourself while you grow more comfortable with the object or situation. If your anxiety level is intolerable, your doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medication, which can be extremely helpful when combined with exposure therapy. Over time, as treatment continues, most people learn to live much more comfortably, with their phobia well under control.
If your fear is affecting your health, happiness, work or relationships, I urge you to seek help. Most people see dramatic improvement – and enjoy a much more fulfilling life – after proper treatment. Perhaps the hardest part is getting past the perceived barriers to treatment and getting started, but I encourage you to try.
Take control. Open the door. Let your life back in.