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The Biology of Phobias

Fear is a universal emotion that’s observed in humans and animals. We might feel fear due to environmental factors such as feeling exposed in public places, a potentially dangerous person on the commute to work, because we have to confront a friend or co-worker, etc.

However, though these may be one-off experiences for some, others live with specific phobias that elicit a consistent reaction of fear and feeling of anxiety in them.

Phobias are impulsive, irrational bodily reactions that can cause a deep, underlying sense of dread when the source of the phobia is encountered. This can be a fear of a place, object, or even a social situation, and this specificity is what distinguishes it from general anxiety disorders.

The National Institute of Mental Health describes Specific Phobia as an irrational fear of something that does not pose any actual danger. However, many adults are aware of the irrationality of the fear, but still, experience symptoms of severe anxiety just at the mere thought of the source.

The prevalence and impact of specific phobia

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Statistics show that approximately 9.1% of adults in the United States of America had a specific phobia in the past, and more than 12% will experience a specific phobia at least once in their lives.

Prevalence studies reveal more women (12.2%) are likely to experience specific phobias than men (5.8%).

There is much interest with regard to examining the neurobiological structure of phobias with the help of innovative neuroimaging techniques. These technical interventions use positron-emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging techniques to make sense of the brain during a triggered phase and record the changes that occur after treatment.

The symptoms of a phobia can have varying degrees of impact, from being a mild inconvenience to severely disabling, interfering with the daily functioning of the individual. If you don’t learn to manage the phobia or its symptoms, it can reduce the quality of life.

Common types of phobias

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The word phobia has origins in the Greek word, photos, which means horror or fear. It is more intense than simply fearing something and can compel you to actively avoid certain objects or situations. There is an extensive list of phobias and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual has categorized them into five main categories. These are:

  1. Animal phobias such as a fear of spiders, insects, reptiles, etc.
  2. Fear of natural environments such as darkness, thunder, heights, etc.
  3. Fear of medical issues or situations related to blood and injury such as falling, accidents, being injected.
  4. Phobia of specific situations related to transport such as flying in an airplane, driving, or even riding an elevator.
  5. All other fears that don’t necessarily fall under the aforementioned categories such as loud noises, drowning in water, choking, etc.

Some of the most common phobias in the United States include:

  1. Acrophobia (a fear of heights)
  2. Aerophobia (a fear of flying)
  3. Autophobia (a fear of being alone)
  4. Claustrophobia (fear of confined or over-crowded places)
  5. Hemophobia (a fear of blood)
  6. Zoophobia (fear of animals)

There are even more unique phobias that can be difficult to identify as people are hesitant to report them to health professionals. These include:

  1. Pogonophobia (fear of beards)
  2. Nephophobia (fear of clouds)
  3. Onomatophobia (a fear of names)
  4. Cryophobia (a fear of ice or cold)
  5. Alektorophobia (fear of chickens)

The medical model of psychology

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The biological explanation for many mental disorders is rooted in the belief that physiological symptoms such as hormonal imbalances etc. and the structure of the brain play a crucial role in understanding the disorder.

This also takes genetic factors and the chemical make-up of the brain into account for each individual.

Irregular serotonin levels

Serotonin is a hormone that acts like a neurotransmitter, which means it transmits signals between neurons and cells. It modulates your mood and excessive quantities can cause both symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Phobias can be treated with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These help to prevent the cells from reabsorbing the serotonin and staying in the synaptic gap can also stimulate the nerve cells more.

Genetic predisposition

Even though there is scope for greater research to determine the role of genetics in causing phobias, the medical model theorizes the possibility of certain genetic traits that cause mental illnesses in some individuals.

However, there needs to be a triggering event that activates the trait and causes the disorder to develop. Triggers vary for each person but have to be severely traumatic or stress-inducing.

If you are unsure about identifying your own phobia or managing its symptoms, it might be time to consult professionals. There can be a range of other environmental factors at play that impact the triggering of your phobia. The more you know, the better equipped you can be to deal with it and improve your quality of life. Learn more about the possibility of managing your anxiety, stress, and phobia on this website.

iv Vronski

Written by iv Vronski

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