POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY: Fear not, there is help for your phobias

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In ordinary conversation, we often hear the word “phobia” when people mean how much they fear or dislike something. The clinical term refers to a condition that can cause significant psychological distress, avoidance behaviors, and interference with a person’s normal routine and social and professional functioning. Indeed, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM V), commonly used in clinical practice by psychiatrists and psychologists to diagnose psychiatric disorders, describes a specific phobia as an intense or irrational fear of an object or an object. specific situation.

Additionally, DSM V classifies specific phobias into four types: natural, such as fear of water; dismemberment, which includes fear of the dentist or fear of injections; animal, for example, a fear of dogs; situational, for example a fear of confined spaces or a fear of flying.

Phobias affect men more than women and usually appear in childhood and persist into adulthood. Sometimes it may be possible to trace the origin of the phobia to a specific incident. For example, if you were bitten by a dog as a child, it could explain your phobia of dogs as an adult. But many people who have been bitten by a dog do not develop a phobia. So it’s not that simple. Perhaps there is a genetic predisposition to anxiety which is triggered by dog ​​bite, maintained by stress and results in a phobia of dogs.

Phobias are more than fear. In itself, fear as an emotion can perform a protective and adaptive function; fear of water when you can’t swim makes good sense. However, with phobias the fear is out of proportion to the real danger. So maybe you want to learn to swim in the local pool.

However, a phobic fear of water will cause you extreme distress (and often avoidance) despite knowing that you will be mentored by qualified instructors and stay in your depth at all times. Indeed, most people who suffer from phobias will find that their fear is disproportionate. Symptoms of fear may include dizziness, nausea, increased blood pressure and heart palpitations, sweating, digestive disturbances. These symptoms are caused by the excitement of the sympathetic nervous system and can mimic panic attacks.

Hence, it is easy to see how specific phobias can really limit a person’s life. So getting the right treatment is really important. The general consensus in the psychological literature is that cognitive behavioral therapy works the best. Techniques include gradual exposure to the feared object, the use of specific psychological tools such as breathing and relaxation exercises, cognitive therapy to deal with distortions in thinking. Mindfulness attitudes to help you accept and endure distress, knowing it will pass and without judging or humiliating you for having such a distressing condition.

Two more complex phobias that we encounter in clinical practice are agoraphobia and social phobia (social anxiety). Most people have heard of agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces. Howard Hughes, the reclusive American aviator and billionaire, is said to have suffered from agoraphobia among other psychiatric diagnoses.

Social phobia or social anxiety is more than just the common nervousness that most of us experience especially when we enter new social contexts or when we meet new people. The anxiety experienced is intense and is accompanied by a sense of dread and apprehension so high that the victim often avoids or withdraws from the situation altogether. There is also a feeling of critical self-supervision, during which the victim watches how she is to present herself to others in a very harsh and ruthless manner. Safety behaviors, or habits that make people feel safer but actually cause more problems in the long run, are often part of the picture. For example, the person feels so anxious that they avoid eye contact with others and look away.

However, this very safe behavior causes other people to find the person’s behavior somewhat strange, the very thing the victim is trying to avoid in the first place. Unlike the other specific types of phobia described above, the therapeutic approach can be more complicated. No matter how often people with social anxiety (phobia) are exposed to social situations (exposure therapy), this alone will not decrease the phobia. The goal of therapy is really to eliminate irrational beliefs and thought patterns and help the client develop adaptive new ones.

The good news is that psychological treatment for phobias – the specific (like fear of water, flying, animals) agoraphobia and social – can be very effective. However, if left untreated, living with a phobia can be extremely disabling. Your GP can be a good first port of call to rule out any complicating physical factors. Further referral to a mental health specialist can lead to often significant improvements in daily functioning and quality of life.

Julie O’Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson are Licensed Clinical Psychologists, both based in Tullamore. Through Mind Your Self Midlands, they run positive psychology and mindfulness classes throughout the year and write a regular column for the Tullamore Tribune and Midland Tribune. They can be contacted through the Psychological Society of Ireland www.psychologistsociety.ie (Find a Psychologist section) or on their Facebook page, Mind Your Self Midlands


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