A phobia is an abnormal or irrational fear of a situation or thing. A person suffering from a phobia may dwell on the object of his or her fear when it is not even present. People have been known to have fears of things as common as running water, dirt, dogs, or high places. One in ten people develop a phobia at some time in their lives.
In addition to the emotional feeling of uncontrollable terror or dread, people suffering from a phobia (called phobics) may experience physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, trembling, rapid heartbeat, and an overwhelming urge to run. These symptoms are often so strong that they prevent phobic people from taking action to protect themselves.
Simple phobias are usually termed according to the specific object or situation feared. Examples include acrophobia (fear of heights), agoraphobia (open spaces), claustrophobia (enclosed spaces), mysophobia (dirt and germs), zoophobia (animals), arachnophobia (spiders), and ophediophobia (snakes).
Social phobias are triggered by social situations. Usually people with social phobias are afraid of being humiliated when they do something in front of others, such as speaking in public or even eating. People suffering from social phobias are often extremely shy.
Phobias can come about for a number of reasons. Psychologists believe that phobias begin when people have an extremely bad or negative experience with an object or situation. They then learn to equate those intense negative feelings with all future encounters with that same object or situation. Sometimes parents may pass irrational fears on to their children in this way.
One of the most effective treatments for phobias is a behavior therapy called exposure. The phobic is exposed to what is feared in the presence of the therapist and directly confronts the object or situation that causes terror. In addition to being treated with behavior therapy, phobics are sometimes given antianxiety drugs in order to lower their feelings of panic. Antidepressants are also used to control panic.