Some people wonder why a person would day after day climb 20 flights of stairs just to get to the right floor at work, or why a person would rather leave a day earlier and drive to Cape Town, instead of fly with the rest of the family, or why a person would pass over a really good promotion at work because the job entails occasional overseas travel.
Simple phobias are persistent fears of certain stimuli or situations that produce an immediate anxiety response. The most common phobias are of animals, like cats, bats, rats etc, blood, closed spaces and heights. Phobias can develop in several ways. We already know that people can genetically inherit a tendency toward a certain phobia and that in most cases there is a biological aspect to the problem, but they can also be learned. Some people develop agoraphobia (a fear of public places) when they have panic attacks outside of their homes and then associate the panic feelings with that environment, while social phobia can originate from specific instances of being embarrassed and criticized in public by a parent or other authority figure. Often specific phobias are learned from parents, whom are observed by their children to be displaying extreme anxiety or fear in certain places or situations, or as a reaction to a specific object.
Phobias might be built into human behaviour as inherent instincts, but whether or not human beings exhibit instinctual behaviour has always been a controversial subject. Freud believed that people have inherent sexual and death instincts. Some phobias, for example, snake and insect phobias, are quite common throughout the world, and may have protected our ancestors from attack by poisonous animals. Perhaps claustraphobia was an early instincts that prevented other early humans from getting trapped in tight spaces like caves or tree trunks. To this day, some of us may have retained these instincts in the form of phobias.
Of course there are those who would argue that all of these phobias are learned behaviours. More studies will have to be done for us to be able to reach a conclusion about whether phobias are instinctive or learned.
Many phobias can interfere with functioning. An example of this is someone with severe agoraphobia. They sometimes reach the stage where they cannot leave their houses. The implications of this are obvious, but even in cases where the phobia is not so severe, many accomodations to the individual’s fears have to be made in the workplace and the home. Usually, when the person finds that they can no longer function even remotely normally, do they decide to go for treatment.
If you suspect that you or someone you know may be suffering from a specific phobia, where their fear of something or a certain situation is interfering with their everyday functioning, know that it is not something that just has to be ‘lived with’. There is help. For more information, telephone counselling or referrals to a support group or an appropriate mental health professional, please contact the Depression and Anxiety Support Group, Monday to Friday, between 8am and 7pm, and on Saturdays, between 8am and 5pm, on (011) 783-1474/6.
There are a variety of different treatments for phobias, ranging from medication to therapy. Usually a combination of the two obtains the best results. A fairly new therapy, known as cognitive-behavioural therapy, has been shown through studies to be the most effective type of therapy for phobias. It entails a partnership between the therapist and the client, in which they come up with a hierarchy of fears. If the client’s fear is of dogs, for example, the hierarchy will consist of the thing that is least feared, like a small dog across a room, first, then progressing to things that are more and more anxiety-provoking, like patting a big dog. The client is taught relaxation techniques in order to cope during the exposures.
The process basically consists of changing the client’s thoughts and feelings, through cognitive restructuring, and changing their behaviour through helping them to face their fears. Once they have had a few positive, controlled experiences with the feared object they eventually ‘unlearn’ their fears and learn to cope with their own feelings of anxiety.