We all know what it’s like to feel scared but when irrational fears start to take over, it can feel like there’s no stopping them. What is it that makes phobias so difficult to manage?
Phobias: More than we can count
Just a quick glance at phobialist.com can give you an idea of just how many phobias have been classified. From agoraphobia to zemmiphobia (fear of rats), it seems that just about anything in any form can be feared. The reasons we develop irrational fears are not always clear, however the ways in which phobias can affect our lives can be severe.
Irrational fears can cause both physical and psychological effects. The physical effects may include:
- Tightness in the throat
- Faster heartbeat
- Chest pain
- Excessive sweating
Psychological effects may include:
- Disassociative feelings
- Difficulty concentrating
- Uncontrollable thoughts
- Fear of dying
All of these symptoms can cause sufferers of irrational phobias to organise their lives so that they never need to deal with the subject of their fear. For people who are frightened of specific objects or events, this may be simple: Arachnophobics can choose to stay away from spiders while claustrophobics will always take the stairs rather than the lift. But what about when fears become more complex?
Dealing with complicated irrational fears
Sometimes there are fears which are so difficult to deal with that they do not allow the sufferer to lead a well-rounded life. Those who live with a social phobia will become very anxious when spending time around other people. The symptoms listed above may occur when they are with just one other person and can stop the sufferer from going out, meeting friends or being in any situation where they are forced to interact with other people.
Another form of complex phobia is agoraphobia which is commonly seen to be a fear of open spaces. However, this definition can be misleading as agoraphobia is more accurately defined as being a fear of being in a situation in which escape to a “safe” environment would be difficult. It is for this reason that agoraphobics often choose to remain inside for long periods of time where they don’t have to deal with any embarrassment should they suffer a panic attack.
Suffering from embarrassment?
Looking at the most common forms of complex irrational fears can reveal something quite telling. Is it the fear itself which is the most problematic or how we will be perceived as a result of the fear? If we come face to face with the thing we fear in the company of others, how will they respond to us should we panic? Will they be understanding or will they reject us? Some of the feelings which may arise as a result of a public panic attack may be:
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Anger or frustration
- Sadness or vulnerability
These feelings can be almost as bad as the feelings which lead up to the panic. This can form a vicious circle where the fear of being ‘exposed’ as phobic is just as bad as the phobia itself. When we are alone, not only can we control whether or not we come into contact with the things which scare us we can also control what reaction we receive.
What are the options?
There are several avenues for treating irrational fears and there isn’t a one size fits all approach. Depending on the severity of the phobia and how long it has been a problem, one or more of the following treatments may be helpful.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is based on the idea that thoughts and feelings are connected and helps to provide practical support in managing fears and phobias. A part of a course of CBT may be a gradual exposure to the object of the phobia in a safe and controlled manner so as to desensitize the sufferer. This is especially effective for simple or specific phobias.
For more complex phobias, longer term counselling or therapy may be more effective in exploring the root cause of the fear and helping the sufferer to overcome it.
There are several types of medication which are occasionally prescribed for the severe panic which can be associated with phobias. However, talking treatments are more usually recommended.
Encouraging the sufferer to practise self-help techniques such as deep breathing, reading helpful books and taking up exercise can help to reduce panic generally.
A key element in overcoming any phobia is to accept the fear in a measured, non-judgemental way and not to be too harsh on the self in getting rid of it. Simply feeling that you shouldn’t be afraid will not tackle the fear alone. However, an integrated approach possibly involving counselling support and self-help techniques almost certainly will.