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Behavioral Wellness Clinic


Specific Phobia

About Phobias and Fear

What Is a Specific Phobia?

A specific phobia is an anxiety disorder characterized by an excessive or unreasonable anxiety or fear surrounding specific situations, people, animals, or things.

Anxiety may be triggered by being around the feared thing, by anticipating being around the feared thing. When a person with a specific phobia comes into contact with the thing they fear, they can often show visible signs of distress. Sometimes when confronted with their fear, or when anticipating it, they can have a panic attack. Many people with specific phobias go to great lengths to avoid what they fear, which can greatly disrupt their daily life.

An example of a person with emetophobia, or fear of vomiting:

Maria has only vomited once in her life, as a little girl, yet she is terrified of vomiting. Her fear seems to have gotten worse since she arrived at college. She's not sure exactly how her fear of vomit developed, but she knows that she is afraid of the physical sensation of vomiting, and wants to avoid doing it at all costs.

Maria avoids many things due to her fear of vomiting. She does not drink alcohol due to the fear of vomiting, nor does she attend parties where alcohol may be present. She also avoids people who are sick, due to the fear that they may vomit, or make her sick. She also avoids eating foods that she is afraid may make her vomit. After eating, she often finds herself checking to see whether or not she is nauseous. Maria has found that this fear greatly impedes her life at college, as it makes it hard for her to eat, drink, and socialize normally with her classmates.

Types of Specific Phobias

There are four main categories of specific phobias:

1. Animal Type - Common Examples include

  • Ailurophobia - fear of cats
  • Cynophobia - fear of dogs
  • Entomophobia - fear of insects
  • Arachnophobia - fear of spiders
  • Apiphobia - fear of bees

2. Natural Environment Type

  • Acrophobia - fear of heights
  • Astraphobia - fear of thunderstorms/lightening
  • Gerascophobia - fear of aging

3. Situational Type

  • Claustrophobia - fear of small, enclosed spaces
  • Nyctophobia - fear of the dark
  • Emetophobia - fear of vomiting

4. Blood/Injection/Injury Type

  • Trypanophobia - fear of medical procedures involving needles

Treatment for Specific Phobias

Here at the BWC we are committed to empirically-supported treatments. In other words, the treatments that we use have been shown, through careful research, to work for many, if not most, people.

We have found that while avoidance of what provokes our anxiety may make us feel better right now, over time it allows these situations, thoughts, and emotions to stay "scary" and therefore for anxiety about them to keep coming back. In therapy for specific phobias we aim to combat this avoidance in a few different ways.

  1. The most commonly used and effective technique for combating specific phobias is called "in vivo exposure" or "in-real-life exposure." In vivo exposure is the confrontation of feared things, places, or situations that have previously been avoided. In therapy, the client and therapist create a "hierarchy" or a list of feared situations related to the phobia that ranges from slightly anxiety-provoking to very anxiety-provoking. Starting with the easiest and most manageable fear, the therapist helps the client confront these situations one by one and stay in them until the anxiety naturally decreases. Slowly, the client works up the hierarchy and is able to confront scarier and scarier situations both with the therapist, and without, until the anxiety is sufficiently reduced.

  2. Occasionally another type of exposure, called "imaginal exposure" is used to combat a specific phobia. Imaginal exposure is the confrontation of a feared situation or possible turn of events by describing this situation in detail in the therapy session. The therapist helps the client create a story, or a "script" of a feared situation involving the phobia, often a worst case scenario of what might happen if the phobic object or situation is confronted. The therapist helps the client recount this script, in detail, in the therapy session until the anxiety surrounding the feared situation is naturally reduced. This can be used for all types of phobias, but can be particularly helpful when the phobia is surrounding something that is not easily confronted or reproduced "in real life" — for instance for phobias of thunderstorms, or of airplanes, if air travel is not easily accessible.



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