Basic Psychology, Psychopathology

Phobic disorders

A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder.Phobic disorders (phobias) involve persistent, irrational fears and avoidance of the situations or objects that induce these fears.If you have one, you’ll do almost anything to avoid what you’re afraid of. Someone with a phobia understands that their fear is not logical. Still, if they try to squelch it, it only makes them more anxious. Women are more likely to experience phobias than men.

Three Main Categories of Phobias

  1. Social phobia : Social phobia is characterized by the fear of being judged by others. Individuals affected by social phobia usually avoid social functions and other gatherings due to the irrational fear of being judged by other attendees. The victim feels that he will be singled out and scrutinized in the crowd, thereby leading to an embarrassing situation. For instance, a person with social phobia will avoid parties fearing that people around him will start laughing at his clothes, or confront him with questions that would make him feel awkward.

  2. Agoraphobia : Agoraphobia is a type of phobia wherein a person fears open spaces. These individuals are more prone to suffer from panic attacks. More than often, the victims try to avoid crowded and public places to cope up with their fear. An agoraphobia victim would usually shy away from visiting airport, gymnasium, clubs, busy stores, restaurants and other prominent places, thereby killing loads of joyful moments in his life.Difference-Between-Agoraphobia-and-Social-Phobia-infographic.jpg

  3. Specific phobia : Specific phobia is a type of phobia which gets triggered due to a specific stimulus. For instance, an individual can experience panic attack while driving, taking an elevator or by merely viewing an insect. It could also be a fear of being trapped in a closed room. Specific phobia can disrupt one’s day to day activities because of the nature of the phobia. For example, a person with a driving phobia will try his best to avoid being seated in the driver’s seat. He would prefer staying dependent on others for his travelling needs to avoid confronting his phobia.

    Types of Specific Phobia

    Specific Phobias are categorized into 5 types:

    • Animal Phobias (e.g., dogs, snakes, or spiders)
    • Natural Environment Phobias (e.g., heights, storms, water)
    • Blood-Injection-Injury Phobias (e.g., fear of seeing blood, receiving a blood test or shot, watching television shows that display medical procedures)
    • Situational Phobias (e.g., airplanes, elevators, driving, enclosed places)
    • Other Phobias (e.g., phobic avoidance of situations that may lead to choking, vomiting, or contracting an illness; in children, avoidance of loud sounds like balloons popping or costumed characters like clowns)


    Some common specific phobias

    names of phobias


A person with a phobia will experience the following symptoms. They are common across the majority of phobias:

  • a sensation of uncontrollable anxiety when exposed to the source of fear
  • a feeling that the source of that fear must be avoided at all costs
  • not being able to function properly when exposed to the trigger
  • acknowledgment that the fear is irrational, unreasonable, and exaggerated, combined with an inability to control the feelings

A person is likely to experience feelings of panic and intense anxiety when exposed to the object of their phobia. The physical effects of these sensations can include:

  • sweating
  • abnormal breathing
  • accelerated heartbeat
  • trembling
  • hot flushes or chills
  • a choking sensation
  • chest pains or tightness
  • butterflies in the stomach
  • pins and needles
  • dry mouth
  • confusion and disorientation
  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • headache

A feeling of anxiety can be produced simply by thinking about the object of the phobia. In younger children, parents may observe that they cry, become very clingy, or attempt to hide behind the legs of a parent or an object. They may also throw tantrums to show their distress.

Phobia Vs Fear



  • biological factors: The brain has special chemicals, called neurotransmitters, that send messages back and forth to control the way a person feels. Serotonin and dopamine are two important neurotransmitters that, when “out of whack,” can cause feelings of anxiety.
  • family factors: Anxiety and fear can be inherited. Just as a child can inherit a parent’s brown hair, green eyes and nearsightedness, a child can also inherit that parent’s tendency toward excessive anxiety. In addition, anxiety may be learned from family members and others who are noticeably stressed or anxious around a child. For example, a child whose parent shows immense fear of spiders may learn to fear spiders, too.
  • environmental factors: A traumatic experience (such as a divorce, illness or death in the family) or even just a major life event .


How the brain works during a phobia

Some areas of the brain store and recall dangerous or potentially deadly events.If a person faces a similar event later on in life, those areas of the brain retrieve the stressful memory, sometimes more than once. This causes the body to experience the same reaction.

Sad brain man skeleton illustration

In a phobia, the areas of the brain that deal with fear and stress keep retrieving the frightening event inappropriately.Researchers have found that phobias are often linked to the amygdala, which lies behind the pituitary gland in the brain. The amygdala can trigger the release of “fight-or-flight” hormones. These put the body and mind in a highly alert and stressed state.


Behavior therapy sets up phobic treatment involving exposure to the phobic stimulus in a safe and controlled setting.

  • Foa and Kozak (1986) call this exposure treatment, , so called because the patient is exposed to the phobic stimulus as part of the therapeutic process. One simple form of exposure treatment is that of flooding, where the person is immersed in the fear reflex until the fear itself fades away. Some phobic reactions are so strong that flooding must be done through one’s imagining the phobic stimulus, rather than engaging the phobic stimulus itself.
  • Some patients cannot handle flooding in any form, so an alternative classical conditioning technique is used called counter-conditioning (Watson, 1924). In this form, one is trained to substitute a relaxation response for the fear response in the presence of the phobic stimulus. Relaxation is incompatible with feeling fearful or having anxiety, so it is said that the relaxation response counters the fear response. This counter-conditioning is most often used in a systematic way to very gradually introduce the feared stimulus in a step-by-step fashion known as systematic desensitization, first used by Joseph Wolpe (1958). This desensitization involves three steps:
  1.  training the patient to physically relax,
  2.  establishing an anxiety hierarchy of the stimuli involved, and
  3.  counter-conditioning relaxation as a response to each feared stimulus beginning first with the least anxiety-provoking stimulus and moving then to the next least anxiety-provoking stimulus until all of the items listed in the anxiety hierarchy have been dealt with successfully.

Biofeedback instrumentation has often been used to ensure that the patient is truly well-relaxed before going the next higher item in the anxiety hierarchy. Several indexes have been used in this adjunctive approach, including pulse rate, respiration rate, and electrodermal responses.

  • Also, systematic desensitization can be paired with modeling, an application suggested by social learning theorists. In modeling, the patient observes others (the “models”) in the presence of the phobic stimulus who are responding with relaxation rather than fear. In this way, the patient is encouraged to imitate the model(s) and thereby relieve their phobia. Combining live modeling with personal imitation is sometimes called participant modeling (Bernstein, 1997).



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