Fear is a normal, biological response to everyday issues that spark anxiety, such as asking for a raise, confronting a loved one, and crossing the street to avoid a creepy stranger. This kind of stress can actually be useful, making you more alert and attentive until you feel safe and calm. Most of us learn early on how to function through fear and are not held back by it. But for some, certain fears can be more overwhelming and immobilizing than others.
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Heights, flying, and snakes are just a few things that evoke intense emotions in some people. For those who experience a persistent, unreasonable, and excessive fear, they may have what experts consider to be a "phobia," according to the definition found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). When one or more objects, places or situations trigger a reaction, it's called specific phobia--the most common of three classifications under phobia, which also includes social phobia (fear of being judged or embarrassed) and agoraphobia (fear of open spaces).
If you suffer from a phobia, you may change your life to accommodate your fear, says Anu Asnaani, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. For example, someone with a specific phobia of dogs (or cynophobia) may skip their best friend's birthday party where the four-legged fur-balls will be present. Phobia, unlike normal anxiety, is irrational and extreme. Rather than ask the pet owners to keep their pooches on leashes, the person will simply opt to miss out on what otherwise could have been a fun social gathering celebrating someone they love.
What causes a phobia? Both nature and nurture. "If your parents have a predisposition to a fear of heights or a fear of flying that behavior can be learned," she says. A traumatic situation, like being bit by a dog as a kid, can also morph into a phobia, she adds. Other times, a genetic predisposition puts you at an increased risk, but mostly it's a combination of inheritance and the environment.
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Is fear holding you back? The DSM-5 estimates 7 to 9 percent (that's up to 22 million) of Americans suffer from phobias of some kind, such as the subtle yet powerful ones outlined below. The good news: Exposure therapy--a type of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which involves slowly exposing someone to their fear over time--is incredibly effective in treating all phobias, Asnaani says. "Teach your body to sit in the presence of something that makes you scared without running away until your anxiety naturally comes down on its own," she says. Also, consider practicing a relaxation technique, like this meditation, to help regain your calm. Lastly, talk to your primary care physician or a mental health professional about other therapy options to help quiet your phobias and fears so you can live a bigger, bolder life.
5 Phobias You May Not Realize Affect You
1. Social Phobia: Also referred to as social anxiety disorder, social phobia affects about 10 percent of Americans, Asnaani says. What makes this group particularly uneasy: "Being negatively evaluated by other people and being seen as deficient socially in some way," she says. You may worry that others think you're stupid, unattractive, or incompetent, she notes. While this level of discomfort rears its ugly head in all sorts of situations, it's most commonly seen in public speaking scenarios. People with social phobia may also avoid anything that has to do with other people, including asking questions or eating in front of others, or even using public restrooms.
The advent of technology has made it easier for socially phobic people to get by, Asnaani says. Today, you can work from home (limiting real interaction with people) and even avoid social settings, such as grocery stores thanks to online food shopping services. Texting also limits the need for real-life conversation. This presents an issue when trying to re-engage socially phobic people into the world. "You lose important social interaction that we believe keeps us human," she says.