Photo Credits to Craig Graves
There are many things in the world that are scary to many people, like spiders or death. There are many things in the word that make many people anxious, like public speaking or crowded places. For some individuals, these things, and others, are terrifying enough to be called phobias.
All phobias are fears, but not all fears are phobias. Likewise, anxiety can result from experiencing a fear or a phobia, but not all situations in which a person may feel anxious is linked to a fearful stimulus. No matter the cause of the fear or anxiety, it is natural for someone to experience either fear or anxiety at some point in their lives.
“Anxiety is a normal part of human functioning and helps us avoid situations that threaten our well-being,” said Dr. Kevin Keiffer, a professor of Psychology at Saint Leo University and a licensed psychologist. “A fear is an unpleasant emotional reaction to a situation or person that is perceived as danger or a threat to our personal well-being. A phobia can be defined as an irrational or extreme form of a fear that affects an individual’s ability to function in their personal, social or occupational environment and which is recognized by the individual as extreme or irrational.”
Whenever a person is exposed to a stimulus they are fearful of, they may experience an increased heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure. These responses are indicative of the “fight or flight” response, which is the momentary pause before an individual decides whether to run away from the stimulus or attack it.
“In these anxiety provoking situations, hormones like cortisol are released which increase circulation, reflexes, and cognitive flexibility,” said Keiffer. “Thus, anxiety is a part of the human condition necessary for survival, but when these emotional reactions become excessive or irrational they are manifested as fears and phobias.”
Phobias are considered debilitating because of the severity of the anxiety attacks individuals can suffer. Many studies dating back to the 1930s have evidence that the amygdala and the hippocampus, located in the temporal lobe of the brain, are responsible for or related to anxiety disorders including the processing of fear and phobias.
In 2010, a case study was published by a group of researchers at the University of Iowa. In this study, the researchers followed a woman, referred to as “SM,” who has a rare genetic disease called Urbach-Wiethe disease, which decreases the operational functionality of her amygdala. During this almost twenty years long study, SM was exposed to various situations that many people would have been afraid of, including handling live snakes and spiders, touring the reportedly haunted Waverly Hills Sanatorium, and a marathon of horror movies the researchers had considered “emotionally evocative.” In each of these situations, SM did not show fear. Despite that, she is still able to function properly and is able to show and feel other emotions. The results of this case study was that the amygdala played a large role in the experience of fear and fear responses.
Since few people have the same genetic disorder as SM from the previously mentioned case study, many people probably do experience phobias. Of those individuals, many may not know that they can receive treatment for their phobias.
“Anxiety is a learned response and as such can be unlearned,” said Keiffer. “Treatments for anxiety disorders include cognitive behavioral therapy, which may include exploring and altering the irrational thoughts about the anxiety provoking stimulus or other behavioral techniques like systematic desensitization, psychopharmacological intervention, mediation [and] relaxation strategies, yoga, acupuncture, and alternative or herbal remedies like kava, passionflower and others. A licensed mental health counselor or licensed clinical or counseling psychologist can work therapeutically with individuals suffering from anxiety, but if psychopharmacological intervention is desired, a physician or psychiatrist must prescribe those medications.”
A recent study conducted by Drs. Marieke Soeter and Merel Kindt of the University of Amsterdam showed that some medications can be used to diminish the fear responses of some individuals. In the study, people with arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, were exposed to a tarantula. Then, while these people were experiencing the effects of their fear, they were injected with either propranolol, which is used to treat high blood pressure, or a placebo. According to the findings of that study, those injected with the propranolol displayed a high chance of approaching the tarantula rather than avoiding it over a one year span.
The goal of that study was to show how people can overcome their fears over time through the use of an amnesic drug. These findings could also be used to help relieve some symptoms of other anxiety disorders and posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. In some ways, PTSD is like a phobia in that there is usually some definitive events that causes the anxiety to flare up. This is not to say that PTSD and phobias are exactly the same, as the nature of a phobia is to be irrationally based in various instances while PTSD is based more in the function of a person’s memory.
Given that phobias are called irrational, some people may find the subject of certain fears to be ridiculous. For example, hippopotomonstrosesquippedali-ophobia is the fear of long words and is, itself, a long word. While a long word may not seem too terrifying to some and therefore irrational, the phobia still exists for others. In contrast to that phobia seeming too irrational, thanatophobia, the fear of death, is a fear that many people across cultures have experienced. It is important to note that no matter how outrageous a phobia seems, it is called a phobia because someone, or possibly many people, has experienced it before.