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    Mental Health Awareness: A Beginner's Guide to Common Phobias

    As we go through life we often encounter fears. Some fears are fleeting whereas others are more persistent. These persistent fears are sometimes down to phobias. But what actually are phobias, and which phobias are the most common? In this article, we will provide you with a beginner’s guide to common phobias that many people experience, touching on topics including stigma and misconceptions, signs and symptoms, the impact phobias can have, and how you can get help with your phobias if you experience any. 

    A lady hiding her face under her top because she is experiencing a phobia

    What is the definition of a phobia?

    According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a phobia is:

    “A fear, horror, strong dislike, or aversion; (...) an extreme or irrational fear or dread aroused by a particular object or circumstance.”

    Essentially, a phobia is an intense and irrational fear of an object or activity. Unlike other fears that are temporary and manageable, phobias can lead to severe anxiety and avoidance behaviours.

    What are the most common phobias?

    According to the mental health charity Verywell Mind, phobias fall into four main categories. These categories are fears of the natural environment, fears of animals, fears of medical treatments and fears of specific solutions. They claim that the four most common phobias are:

    • Arachnophobia - Fear of spiders

    • Ophidiophobia - Fear of snakes

    • Glossophobia - Fear of public speaking

    • Acrophobia - Fear of heights

    • Social Phobia - Fear of social interactions

    How prevalent are phobias in the UK?

    Phobias are notably prevalent in the UK, with an estimated 10 million people affected by these anxiety disorders (NHS Inform, 2023). Phobias can affect anyone regardless of age, gender and social background. 

    Is a phobia the same as fear?

    While both phobias and fears involve feelings of apprehension or distress, they are different in terms of intensity and impact. A phobia is an overwhelming and debilitating fear of a specific object, place, situation, feeling, or animal. It's more pronounced than a fear and can significantly disrupt daily life. Phobias develop when someone has an exaggerated or unrealistic sense of danger about a particular situation or object. (NHS, 2022).

    What is a complex phobia?

    Complex phobias, in contrast to simple phobias, are usually more disabling and intricate. They often emerge during adulthood and are characterised by a profound fear or anxiety related to specific situations or circumstances. Two of the most common complex phobias include agoraphobia, which involves the fear of being in situations where escape might be difficult or embarrassing, and social phobia, which involves intense fear of social situations (NHS, 2022).

    Misconceptions & Stigma

    What are common misconceptions of phobias?

    According to the Recovery Village, there are 5 common misconceptions/stigmas associated with common phobias. These are:

    1. People with phobias are crazy - Phobias are not linked to mental instability or insanity.

    2. Phobias aren’t serious - Phobias can significantly impact someone’s daily life causing distress and affecting normal functioning.

    3. Phobias are overrated fears - Phobias extend beyond typical fears by causing extreme and often irrational reactions.

    4. There’s such a thing as a rational phobia - By definition, phobias involve irrational responses to different situations or objects.

    5. Phobias can’t be overcome - Although phobias are challenging, they are treatable and people can get over them.

    Signs & Symptoms

    What are the physical symptoms of phobias?

    The physical symptoms of phobias can be distressing and overwhelming. Often, the most common physical symptoms manifest as (NHS, 2022):

    • Sweating, hot flushes or chills

    • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

    • Trembling

    • A choking sensation

    • Rapid heartbeat or pain/tightness in the chest

    • Nausea, feeling faint or dizzy

    • Headaches

    • Numbness or pins and needles

    • Dry mouth

    • Urge to urinate or defecate

    • Ringing in the ears

    • Confusion or disorientation 

    What are the psychological symptoms of phobias?

    As well as physical symptoms, many individuals will experience psychological symptoms if they suffer from phobias. The most common psychological symptoms include (NHS, 2022):

    • Fear of losing control

    • Fear of fainting

    • Feelings of dread

    • Fear of dying

    What environmental factors can cause a phobia?

    Environmental factors can play a significant role in the development of phobias. According to the mental health charity Mind, there are several environmental factors that can impact phobias. Growing up in an environment where parents or guardians have high levels of worry, observing the reactions of parents, guardians or siblings, or experiencing a traumatic event can all lead to the development of phobias. People can also develop phobias by social learning, for example, if they are surrounded by people with a certain phobia (such as a fear of flying) then this can become learned behaviour. 

    The Impact of Phobias

    How can a phobia impact on personal life?

    Phobias can significantly impact someone’s personal life. The Mayo Clinic has put together a number of different ways that phobias can affect someone’s personal list. Their points include:

    • Social Isolation: Avoidance of places or situations that trigger fear can lead to social isolation, affecting relationships, work, and school.

    • Mood Disorders: Many individuals with specific phobias experience co-existing conditions such as depression and other anxiety disorders.

    • Substance Abuse: Coping with the stress of living with a severe phobia may lead some individuals to misuse drugs or alcohol.

    • Risk of Suicide: In severe cases, individuals with specific phobias may be at risk of suicidal thoughts or behaviours.

    • Strain on Relationships: Phobias and the need for reassurance or avoidance behaviours can cause a strain on relationships.

    Seeking Help

    When should you seek help for phobias?

    Seeking help for phobias is advisable in several situations. If you find that the phobia is interfering with your daily life then you may wish to address it. You may also seek treatment if you have an inability to avoid triggers, suffer from persistent distress due to your phobia, or simply have a desire to improve your life (NHS, 2022)

    Can therapy and medication help phobias?

    Yes, both therapy and medication can be effective in managing phobias. Various forms of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, and systematic desensitisation, have been proven effective in treating phobias. These therapies help individuals understand and challenge irrational thoughts and behaviours associated with the phobia. In some cases, therapists can gradually expose people to the feared object or situation in a controlled environment, helping to reduce fear and anxiety over time. 

    Medication is typically not the first-line treatment for phobias. In some cases, medication may be prescribed to alleviate symptoms of anxiety associated with phobias. Your healthcare provider will be able to let you know whether they think medication is right for you, and what medication might work best (NHS, 2022).

    Self-help Strategies for Phobias

    Can self-help techniques help to treat phobias?

    Yes, there are a number of self-help techniques that people suffering from phobias can use to help treat their condition. NHS Inform even offers a full guide on self-help techniques if you have a phobia. As well as this guide, mental health charity Mind provides the following advice for self-help and phobias:

    • Talk to someone you trust

    • Learn how to manage your panic/anxiety

    • Research local/online support groups

    • Use self-help resources

    • Take a course on your specific phobia

    As well as the self-help guide and the advice provided by Mind, the NHS suggest getting regular exercise, eating a healthy, balanced diet, getting plenty of sleep, and reducing your caffeine intake can all help you cope with your phobias.

    Can mindfulness and relaxation help with phobias?

    Both mindfulness and relaxation can be beneficial in managing phobias (Cohut & Robertson, 2020). By practising mindfulness techniques, people with phobias can learn to focus their attention on being in the moment, bringing a sense of calm and reducing overall levels of anxiety and fear. Mindfulness can help people become more aware of their current state and surroundings, which helps to fight off irrational thoughts.

    Can building a strong support network help with phobias?

    According to the mental health charity Mind, building a strong support network around you can significantly aid people struggling with phobias. Friends, family members and peers can offer encouragement and motivation that can boost someone’s belief in their ability to overcome their phobia. Peer support groups are also available to help people if they do not have anyone they feel they can fall back on. 


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