Phobias are characterized by extreme fear, avoidance of triggering situations and increases in anxiety and panic. Facts about phobias are commonly misunderstood; therefore, phobias may be dismissed as minor inconveniences or mildly uncomfortable. In reality, phobias can be intensely distressing. Understanding some of the myths about phobias can help sufferers and their loved ones seek appropriate treatment.
1. Myth: People with phobias are crazy.
Fact: Phobias are a legitimate psychiatric condition.
Phobias are characterized by irrational fears. For someone who has not experienced a phobia, it can seem like feelings of fear are exaggerated or not based in reality. However, phobias are extremely real and distressing to those experiencing them.
Specific phobias are a legitimate psychiatric condition, as outlined in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Using the term “crazy” to describe someone experiencing a psychiatric condition can increase the stigma of phobias, and act as a barrier to treatment. For the person experiencing them, phobias are logical and extremely real, and diminishing the legitimacy of specific phobias can do more harm than good in addressing the distress experienced by people with phobias.
2. Myth: Phobias aren’t serious.
Fact: Phobias are extremely distressing and linked with significant impairment in normal functioning.
Fears and anxieties are a common part of life, and many people feel uncomfortable or anxious in certain situations or around particular objects. Because of this, some people may believe that phobias are a normal part of life, and are not to be taken too seriously.
However, anxiety, fear and panic experienced by people with specific phobias can be extremely severe and debilitating. Having a specific phobia can lead to avoidance of certain situations that interferes with daily functioning. Additionally, people who suffer from phobias may feel a great deal of anxiety related to their phobia, and many may experience severe or frequent panic attacks.
People with phobias may experience serious consequences, such as:
- Avoidance of social situations
- Persistent anxiety and frequent panic attacks
- Inability to work
- Experience of other psychiatric conditions
The disruption in daily, healthy functioning combined with extreme anxiety experienced by people with phobias can be quite serious. It is unlikely to resolve on its own without psychological attention and treatment.
3. Myth: Phobias are just overrated fears.
Fact: Phobias are linked with an extreme biological and psychological fear response.
Fear has played an important evolutionary role for humans; fear has helped people anticipate and escape dangerous situations to survive. Although the types of threats to survival are different in the modern world, the human capacity for fear is still wired to keep people alive. Feelings of fear provoke extreme reactions from what someone perceives as a threatening situation. Although phobias may seem like over exaggerated fears, they are perceived as very real threats by the person experiencing the phobia.
Fear can be helpful in keeping people from danger. When comparing normal fears with phobias, there are similarities in the way that the body and brain respond to a threat. However, the experience of phobic fear involves increased activation in fear responses in the brain compared with normal fear. This heightened fear response in the brain is also related to a greater physical fear response. People with specific phobias experience clear biological and physical responses to a particular experience or object; these feelings are not simply exaggerated or a case of overreaction.
4. Myth: There’s such a thing as a rational phobia.
Fact: By definition, a phobia is a fear that is irrational.
The role of fear in human survival is extremely rational, as it helps people escape dangerous situations. However, the fear response is not always perfect at evaluating a threat, and the brain can overreact to stimuli that are not truly threatening. In these circumstances, fears may become unnecessary or irrational.
To demonstrate a modern example, if a person is a victim of an armed robbery and threatened by a person carrying a weapon, feelings of fear or panic are justified in the face of this real threat to safety. On the contrary, if someone experiences the same level of fear toward a non-poisonous animal, or an enclosed space with a clear exit or adequate airflow, these fears would be considered irrational. Although phobias are considered illogical responses to an object or situation, it’s important to remember that the experience of these fears is very distressing and real for someone with a specific phobia.
5. Myth: Phobias can’t be overcome.
Fact: Phobias can be overcome and there are several treatments available.
Phobias can be chronic and long-lasting and are not likely to simply go away on their own. Importantly, people with phobias are often slow to seek treatment, as they may not consider their disorder serious enough to warrant psychiatric attention. However, for those who do seek treatment, the outlook is fairly positive. There are many treatment options available for overcoming phobias, and the most suitable option may vary based on the person and type of phobia. For example, phobia treatments can include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Exposure therapy
- Behavioral and cognitive strategies to manage anxiety and panic
There is evidence to support the role of exposure therapy in helping people to overcome their phobias. Additionally, multiple treatment sessions may be helpful in maintaining long-term effects for phobias. These treatment options can allow people who have specific phobias to resume some of their usual activities, free from extreme anxiety and panic.
If you are experiencing a specific phobia related to substance use, or experience phobias as a result of substance use, contact The Recovery Village to discuss treatment options that are available to you.
LeBeau, R. T., et al. “Specific phobia: a review of DSM-IV specific phobia and preliminary recommendations for DSM-V.” Depress Anxiety, 2010. Accessed May 23, 2019. Wolitzky-Taylor, K. B., et al. “Psychological approaches in the treatment of specific phobias: a meta-analysis.” Clin Psychol Rev, 2008. Accessed May 23, 2019. Larson, C.L. et al. “Fear Is Fast in Phobic Individuals: Amygdala Activation in Response to Fear-Relevant Stimuli.” Biol Psychiatry, 2006. Accessed May 23, 2019.
LeBeau, R. T., et al. “Specific phobia: a review of DSM-IV specific phobia and preliminary recommendations for DSM-V.” Depress Anxiety, 2010. Accessed May 23, 2019.
Wolitzky-Taylor, K. B., et al. “Psychological approaches in the treatment of specific phobias: a meta-analysis.” Clin Psychol Rev, 2008. Accessed May 23, 2019.
Larson, C.L. et al. “Fear Is Fast in Phobic Individuals: Amygdala Activation in Response to Fear-Relevant Stimuli.” Biol Psychiatry, 2006. Accessed May 23, 2019.