Louis Awerbuck

Louis Awerbuck

Clinical Psychologist Stellenbosch

Phobia: The Fear that Makes No Sense

Most people know the experience of being afraid of, or scared of, something or some situation. More than often, there is a realistic reason for this fear as this unpleasant emotion normally originated as the result of a specific incident. If one is the survivor of a shark attack for example, it is normally not considered inappropriate if a fear of sharks is an outcome of such an attack. Being scared of contamination in the time of Covid-19 could also be considered as a fear with a realistic base.

However, about 10% of the adult population experience unrealistic or “illogical” fears, which are called phobias. Phobias are normally not sensible, and people suffering from specific phobias realise the illogical nature of their fears. For example, people who are intensely scared of spiders normally realise that almost all spiders are harmless, and that spiders are probable more scared of humans than the other way around. However, they still continue to experience their fears in spite of knowing that these fears are “unnecessary”.

A phobia is an anxiety-related condition that can be objectively diagnosed and is seen as a continuous fear for an object (e.g., snakes, birds, spiders etc.), or for a situation (e.g., public speaking, social gatherings etc.). For a fear to be diagnosed as a phobia, there has to be a repetitive pattern of avoidance, in the sense that the person that suffers from the phobia will go to extreme lengths to avoid the situation. When a person gets exposed to the object or situation that he/she has a phobia about, the person always will experience immediate, intense anxiety that is observable to bystanders. A person who is exposed to an object or situation that is linked to a phobia, will visibly experience panic, hypertension, sweating and furthermore will experience panic attacks if the situation cannot be avoided or escaped. People with phobias cannot control their anxiety when exposed to the source of their phobia, even if they try their best to.

Phobias are normally divided into three categories:

  • Social Phobia – a fear for other people or social situations. This category of phobia normally presents in the form of intense self-consciousness in social situations or when in the presence of others, and subsequent avoidance of situations where social interaction is occurring.
  • Specific Phobia – a fear for something specific, like spiders or snakes. Most people feel uncomfortable to handle a spider or a snake, but people with a phobia will do everything in their power to avoid any interaction with these animals.
  • Agoraphobia – a general fear to leave one’s home or “safe space”, with panic attacks that result if a person ventures outside of their “safe zone”. This phobia can also be fuelled by specific phobias like a fear of germs or public shopping malls.
  • In general phobias have their onset during adolescence, from the age of 13. Some people can easily live with their phobias by arranging their lives in such a manner that they cannot be confronted by their fears. For example, if one has a phobia of heights, it is fairly easy to simply avoid heights altogether. However, a phobia related to public spaces is more difficult to manage in everyday life.

    Phobias can be treated fairly easily through a combination of physical relaxation (which can include medication) and psychotherapy. Therapy normally involves a process called systematic desensitization, where a person is gradually exposed to the object or situation related to the phobia until the intense avoidance behaviour ceases to occur.

Author: Louis Awerbuck

Clinical psychologist