What are the things that scare you: snakes, spiders or creepy crawlies? Or maybe you have a fear of heights or visiting the dentist. Although some of us just get scared or a bit nervous about these things, for others it can cause an irrational reaction that can’t be controlled – something we call a phobia. It occurs when someone develops an exaggerated or unrealistic sense of danger about a situation or object.
Sometimes it’s good to be aware of the possible dangers from things. Our brain alerts us to the risks that might lie ahead, but then we often rationalise the risks and overcome them. Clinical psychologist Warren Mansell told the BBC: “Our fears are hard-wired into our brains – we don’t need to learn to be afraid of animals like snakes or spiders.” But phobias are stronger than just fears. Warren says: “An area called the amygdala in the brain is recognising a threat and preparing your body for fight or flight.” With a phobia, your breathing gets quicker, your pulse speeds up, you sweat, there’s more glucose in your blood, increasing your energy, and your brain is unable to control these reactions.
But where does a phobia come from? Speaking to the BBC, Lauren Rosenberg, a fear and phobia expert, says: “Phobias usually are a copy behaviour from a higher authority, like a parent or teacher, or something you have learnt from your own experience.” Or a trauma from a past event that comes back to haunt you.
There are many different complex phobias some people suffer from, such as agoraphobia – triggered by being away from home, social anxiety disorder – feeling anxious in social situations, and iatrophobia – fear of doctors. But how can they be overcome? Cognitive behavioural therapy is one option, where you gradually get used to whatever it is you fear. Lauren Rosenburg says she likes to work with people to clear their subconscious memory and help them breathe. But if you do have a phobia, continually trying to avoid what you’re afraid of is likely to make the situation worse, so it’s a good idea to find help to overcome it.