The term phobia, which comes from the Greek word for fear (fobos), denotes a number of psychological and physiological conditions that can range from serious disabilities to common fears to minor quirks.
Phobias are the most common form of anxiety disorder. An American study by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) found that between 5.1 and 21.5 percent of Americans suffer from phobias. Broken down by age and gender, the study found that phobias were the most common mental illness among women in all age groups and the second most common illness among men older than 25.
Understanding and classifying phobias
Most psychologists and psychiatrists divide phobias into three categories:
* Social phobias - fears to do with other people and social relationships such as performance anxiety, fears of eating in public, etc.
* Specific phobias - fear of a single specific panic trigger, like dogs, flying, running water and so on.
* Agoraphobia - a generalised fear of leaving your home or your small familiar 'safe' area, and of the inevitable panic attacks that will follow. Agoraphobia is the only phobia regularly treated as a medical condition.
Many specific phobias, such as fears of dogs, heights, spider bites, and so forth, are extensions of fears that everyone has. People with these phobias treat them by avoiding the thing they fear.
Many specific phobias can be traced back to a specific triggering event, usually a traumatic experience at an early age. Social phobias and agoraphobia have more complex causes that are not entirely known at this time. It is believed that heredity, genetics and brain-chemistry combine with life-experiences to play a major role in the development of anxiety disorders and phobias.
Phobias vary in severity among individuals, with some phobics simply disliking or avoiding the subject of their fear and suffering mild anxiety. Others suffer fully-fledged panic attacks with all the associated disabling symptoms.
It is possible for a sufferer to become phobic about virtually anything. The name of a phobia generally contains a Greek word for what the patient fears plus the suffix -phobia. Creating these terms is something of a word game. Few of these terms are found in medical literature.
Some therapists use virtual reality to desensitize patients to the feared thing. Other forms of therapy that may be of benefit to phobics are graduated exposure therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Anti-anxiety medication can also be of assistance in some cases. Most phobics understand that they are suffering from an irrational fear, but are powerless to override their initial panic reaction.
Graduated Exposure and CBT both work towards the goal of desensitising the sufferer, and changing the thought patterns that are contributing to their panic. Gradual desensitisation treatment and CBT are often extremely successful, provided the phobic is willing to endure some discomfort and to make a continuous effort over a long period of time. Practitioners of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) claim to have a procedure that can be used to alleviate most specific phobias in a single therapeutic session, though this has not yet been verified scientifically.
Non-clinical uses of the term
In some cases, a fear or hatred is not considered a phobia in the clinical sense because it is believed to be only a symptom of other psychological problems, or the result of ignorance, or of political or social beliefs. These are phobias in a more general, popular sense of the word:
* Afrophobia, fear or dislike of Africans or African culture or people of African ancestry
* Islamophobia, fear or dislike of Muslims or Islamic culture
* Ethnophobia, fear or dislike of majority culture or cultural homogeneity, often used to describe internationalist political beliefs and movements.
* Homophobia, fear or dislike of homosexual people
* Xenophobia, fear or dislike of strangers or the unknown, often used to describe nationalistic political beliefs and movements
* Ephebophobia, irrational fear of adolescents gaining more rights or showing behavioral, emotional or social emancipation
Furthermore, the term hydrophobia, or fear of water, is usually not a psychological condition at all, but another term for the disease rabies, referring to a common symptom. Likewise photophobia, is a physical complaint, aversion to light due to an inflamed or painful eye or excessively dilated pupils).
The opposite of the suffix -phobia is a -philia or -philie (meaning "love of").
The information above is not intended
for and should not be used as a substitute for the diagnosis and/or treatment
by a licensed, qualified, health-care professional. This article is licensed
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