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.
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.
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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.
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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.
Agoraphobia: Agoraphobia is a fairly well-recognized phobia defined by a fear of places from which escape might be difficult, Asnaani says. But this doesn’t mean claustrophobia (a fear of confined places). It’s more about fearing areas where, if something were to happen to you, it would be hard to get help. A few examples: bridges, public transportation, wide open spaces, or places far away from home. Agoraphobia, which affects approximately 1.8 million Americans , often occurs with panic disorder, she adds. Women are twice as likely to have agoraphobia as men; and the phobia is seen more in young people, she says. This could be because at a younger age, you’re more expected to go out, explore the world, and do things outside of your comfort zone.
Fear of Intimacy: Aphenphosmphobia, as it’s called, isn’t necessarily diagnosed as a phobia on its own, but is usually seen as an aspect of social phobia, Asnaani says. Often experienced by those who have had traumatic past relationships, you might resist getting close to people, fearing you can only share details about yourself that are calculated or surface level. Out of fear you might be judged, you can’t be vulnerable, Asnaani says. “You don’t actually share things that are problematic. You don’t tell people that you’re anxious,” she says. “People with a fear of intimacy may not have friends or people who they feel they can talk to.” A common phrase used by people who suffer from a fear of intimacy: “I feel alone in the world.”
While social media brings us together and seems to temporarily cure that sense of loneliness, “you only get to present your best self,” Asnaani says. Someone with a fear of intimacy may feel connected through Facebook, but it’s surface level. In fact, research suggests that the more time young adults spend on social media, the more likely they are to be depressed. That’s why Asnaani says, in treatment, experts may urge people to go offline. “When we progress in treatment, we want to help people build connections and share meaningful or even embarrassing things about themselves in person.”
Fear of Germs: Mysophobia tends to go hand-in-hand with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), says Asnaani. If you’re suffering, you might avoid touching objects you deem germ-y and even stay away from places that could ultimately wind up getting you sick. Technology may play a big role in allowing you to live with your mysophobia, Asnaani says. For example, if you’re worried that the yoga studio is packed with bacteria, you may opt to pop a yoga DVD and get bendy in the comfort of your home instead. When coupled with OCD, a fear of germs might be accompanied by “rituals to offset contamination,” Asnaani says. This could include hand-washing, not letting certain objects touch each other, or obsessively disinfecting things.
Fear of Failure: “Fear of failure, or atychiphobia, comes up a lot when we’re treating many anxiety disorders,” Asnaani says. While experts don’t think of it as its own phobia, it’s often encompassed within OCD or generalized anxiety disorder, she says. If you suffer from a phobia of failure, you might check your work repeatedly, avoid social situations out of fear you’ll be rejected, or miss out on new experiences due to an uncertainty of the outcome.