Phobias

Definition

Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their life. People become anxious when they have to face a highly stressful situation like taking a test or going for a job interview. When one is anxious and under stress, the body reacts; hands become clammy, the heart beats a little faster; one can even feel lightheaded or dizzy. This is a natural, and necessary, “fight or flight” reaction! Anxiety in moderate doses is perfectly healthy. Worry can even be good for you; it can motivate you to get things done.

If someone has an intense fear of a specific thing or situation they might have a phobia.

We all feel scared of certain things at times in our lives, but phobias are different. People change the way they live in order to avoid the feared object or situation. - CMHA

For example, you might feel nervous around dogs, but it doesn’t prevent you from taking a walk in the park where you might encounter one. Someone with a phobia of dogs might avoid going anywhere where there might be a dog, feel extreme discomfort at even the thought of dogs, and even have a full-blown panic attack when a dog is near. Phobias affect relationships, school, work and day-to-day life.

Phobias are different for different people. Some common phobias are heights, public speaking, enclosed or tight spaces, going to the doctor or dentist, flying, or dogs, but there are a wide range of specific phobias a person can have. Some phobias can be simply irritating, while others can be outright debilitating. This might depend on the person experiencing the phobia and what the object of the phobia is. For instance, a phobia of flying might not affect your day-to-day life if you don’t need to travel often, but is still intense and stops you from flying when you need to.

It is not:

  • The result of any actions or personal failures of the individual.
  • A sign or result of low intelligence or weakness.
  • A funny or weird personality trait or “quirk”.
Causes

Most of the time, phobias don’t just appear out of nowhere in adulthood. Many people who have phobias develop them in childhood or during teen years.

Some people can point to a stressful or traumatic situation that triggered the development of a phobia. For instance, witnessing or experiencing an attack or encounter with an aggressive dog might cause someone to develop a phobia of dogs or animals in general.

For others, the source of the phobia isn’t that clear or obvious. It might be caused by hearing repeated warnings about a specific object as a child or young person. It can also develop from learned behaviour, like watching a parent react fearfully to a specific object or situation over and over.

People who have a family history of anxiety disorders are at a higher risk of developing a phobia or other anxiety disorder. 

Signs and Symptoms

Below is a list of signs and symptoms for Phobias. The following list should not be used to diagnose yourself or someone else. It is only intended to provide general information. If you think you might be experiencing a mental illness, you should see your doctor.

Symptoms will appear when faced with the object of the phobia, and might begin in anticipation of having to face that specific object or situation. In severe cases, symptoms may be brought on even by just thinking about the object/situation, or being in an area where one might theoretically encounter it. You might notice that many of these signs or symptoms could be explained by any number of issues, not just Phobias.

Thoughts, Feelings, Behaviours

  • Excessive or irrational fear of a specific object or situation.
  • Avoiding the object or situation or enduring it with great distress.
  • Avoiding situations where one may have to think about the object (for example, avoiding biology class if you have a phobia about blood).
  • An intense and immediate anxious response when in contact with the source of the phobia.
  • Knowing that one’s fear is irrational or exaggerated but feeling powerless to control it.
  • Becoming nervous while anticipating the feared object or situation even if it is unlikely to occur (someone with a phobia of snakes might experience terror while walking through a field or even in their own home where it is unlikely to find a snake).
  • Becoming nervous just by thinking of the object, or being reminded of it.

Physical symptoms

  • Intense physical symptoms of anxiety or a panic attack
  • Upset stomach, nausea or diarrhea
  • Experiencing muscle tension
  • Feeling restless or wound up
  • Having sleep difficulties
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Trembling
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Excessive sweating or sweaty palms
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Feeling like you are choking
Help

Phobias are treatable. For Phobias or any other mental health concern, if signs or symptoms are interfering with your life in any way, it’s time to seek help. You don’t have to wait for things to get really “bad” before seeking help.

If the phobia is causing situations where you are avoiding people, places or objects and the avoidance is getting in your way of living a full or comfortable life, it’s probably time to talk to someone. That someone could be a friend you trust, a teacher, your family doctor, a crisis line, or counsellor.

If it is a friend you are concerned about, they may resist help or not even recognize that they need it. Phobias can be hard to face up to, as the person may know that their fears are “irrational” but also might feel like the object of their fear is justifiable (example: some dogs bite, so it’s not irrational for me to be afraid of that happening.) They might need you to make the first step.

As always, if you feel like your friend might hurt him/herself or someone else, it’s time to call emergency services.  

Visit our Help Section to find out how to get help for yourself or a friend.

Treatment

Like other mental health issues, Phobias and how they are experienced will differ from person to person. Because each case is unique, the treatment will likely be unique for each individual.

Phobias can be treated with specific types of therapy, like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (where you learn coping strategies and ways to deal with troubling thoughts, feelings and behaviours) and support groups (where you can connect with others going through similar situations and support one another). Counseling to learn coping skills and relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, may also help a person deal with their phobia.

The most common and successful treatment for phobia involves introducing that person slowly, in small steps, to situations where they must deal with the fear, while teaching them coping skills along the way. This is called exposure therapy.

Family members of someone who has a Phobia may participate in therapy or support groups, or benefit from learning about it and ways to support their loved one at home.

Medication can also be helpful to help stabilize someone enough to get the most out of therapy, counselling and living life. Every person is different, so if medication is used, it may take a while to find the medication that works best for you.

Sometimes spending time in a treatment clinic or hospital is necessary, while for others, outpatient (getting help for a professional without having to actually “stay over” in a hospital) is better.

If you have to wait to get an appointment, there are many places that offer support while you wait. Find out where to call in your area.

Along with treatment from your doctor or therapist, there are things you can do to help and support your own recovery.

Every story is different, and sometimes people need to try different types of supports before they find the right plan for them. Be patient, and don’t give up.

A person living with a Phobia, like any other person, will benefit from maintaining wellness and having good supports in their life. 

Myths

Myth: People who are anxious should be forced to do the things they're afraid of.

Fact: Forcing someone to face their fear all at once is usually harmful. Exposure therapy, on the other hand, can help someone to gradually face and defuse anxiety provoking fears. This should be done in a professional setting. A well-meaning friend or family member may accidentally harm their loved one by attempting exposure therapy themselves.

Myth: Phobias are just fears.

Fact: Someone who has never had a phobia might think it is experienced in the same way a regular fear is. A phobia can be terrifying though and trying to confront it without professional help can be harmful.

Myth: Phobias are just a part of someone’s personality.

Fact: There is little evidence to support this theory. Most phobias are very treatable and not permanently part of who someone is.

Myth: Phobias are inherited.

Fact: Phobias are not genetically inherited, however they can be learned from parents or other people.

Myth: Avoiding the thing you have a phobia of is the best way to deal with it.

Fact: If you have a phobia that doesn’t limit your life or experiences, such as a fear of rats, there may be no harm in avoiding it. But if it does limit your ability to enjoy life, then why not get treatment?

Myth: You only get anxiety if you are a nervous person.

Fact: Anyone at any point in time can develop an issue with anxiety. It is one of the most common mental health problems faced today, particularly among young people.

Myth: Since anxiety is "in your head," anxiety disorders are not true illnesses.

Fact: In fact, an anxiety disorder is an extreme form of uncontrollable worry and fear that causes serious misery and impairment. If it's not treated, it can dramatically limit a person’s quality of life.

Myth: People with phobias and other anxiety issues are just weak and should just pull themselves together.

Fact: People are not diagnosed with an anxiety disorder unless it's much more overwhelming and impairing than the typical anxiety people feel. People with anxiety need treatment to manage their feelings and feel safe. Having a disorder has nothing to do with a person’s “strength”. It is a combination of genetics, psychological, and environmental factors that lead to the illness. Telling someone who has an anxiety disorder to “just calm down” is like telling someone who needs glasses to “just see better”. It just doesn’t work that way.

Myth: I get nervous around __________________. I must have a phobia.

Fact: Everyone experiences stress and anxiety. A disorder, like a Phobia, is only diagnosed when the worry is extreme, irrational, excessive, causes great distress, or affects your life significantly. 

Support

Supporting someone with any type of serious illness can be challenging. Ways to help and support a friend or loved one who is living with a phobia:

  • Know the signs and symptoms of Phobias and other anxiety disorders.
  • The anxious thoughts and worries someone has when they have a phobia may not make any sense to you, but they feel very real to the person dealing with them. Instead of trying to apply logic or explain the fears away, try thinking of a time when you were really worried and try to empathize with how your friend is feeling.
  • It’s tempting to want to do things for your friend to help them avoid situations that will trigger their anxiety. Too much of this, however, might prevent your friend from practicing the skills they need to learn coping strategies to deal with their fears.
  • It is also important not to force your friend into situations that make them feel uncomfortable. Your best bet is to listen to your friend, and let them show you how you can best support them.
  • Try to avoid being critical. Someone who has a phobia is likely already really critical of themselves and knows that their fear is irrational. They probably need someone around who is non-judgemental.
  • Treatment is a process. Medications and therapy can take time to help. Be aware of this and try to be supportive as your friend adjusts.
  • Be a sounding board. Listening without judgement and without trying to “fix” their problems can be incredibly helpful.
  • Ask your friend how else you can help. It may be as easy as just providing a distraction, asking them to do simple, relaxing things with you (like hanging out, watching a movie, etc.).
  • If your friend is in the hospital, go and visit them if you are able. The hospital may be scary and overwhelming for them and a friendly face can help. Make sure to ask about visitor rules first.
  • Encourage professional help for your friend when needed (see Help Section).
  • Set some boundaries for yourself, and take care. You can’t help someone if you’re feeling overwhelmed yourself.

See the Help Section for more info about helping a friend and self care. 

More on mindyourmind.ca

Anatomy of a Panic Attack is a tool that illustrates how panic attacks can feel and what you can do to get through.

Facing My Fear of Open Water” is a story of how a young person copes with their fear of open water… and then becomes an Olympic Swimmer!

A tool, MonSTRESSity, that has tips for how to cope at home, in the classroom or in a crowded place.

Resources

The information on this page is a simple overview of a complicated health issue. The content has been taken from CAMHCMHA, and the  Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada and the Canadian Psychological Association . For more in-depth information, please visit these sources or speak to a medical professional.

Ontario – call ConnexOntario to find out where there are mental health supports in your community.

Crisis – in any situation where someone is at risk of hurting themselves or others, call 911 or a local crisis line.

Please see the Help Section for more information and resources.