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What Is a Phobia? Fostering Understanding and Reducing Stigma

What Is a Phobia?  Fostering Understanding and Reducing Stigma

A phobia is a persistent and overwhelming fear of a specific situation, activity, or object. There are several different types of phobias; some may involve the fear of a specific animal, like cynophobia, which is an extreme fear of dogs. Other phobias can cause overwhelming anxiety about being in a certain environment. For example, you might have heard of the term claustrophobia: an overwhelming fear of being in tight or confined spaces. Someone who has claustrophobia might become extremely distressed in situations where they feel trapped, such as a full elevator or plane, and may avoid these environments altogether.

A phobia is more than just being uncomfortable or scared. It’s a type of anxiety disorder. According to the DSM-5, to be diagnosed with a specific phobia, the trigger needs to cause overwhelming distress, or the person must avoid the trigger altogether because of the anxiety it causes them to the point where it seriously affects their life. They must have an immediate and intense fear response to their trigger when they are faced with it. Symptoms also need to be present for the last six months or longer.

The Stigma Around Phobias

A lack of understanding can lead to misconceptions and stigma. This is true for many mental illnesses, but especially for phobic disorders. Studies show that ignorance contributes to a lack of empathy toward people with phobias, which makes them feel worse. People who don’t understand the severity of phobias may not understand why someone is afraid of a certain situation or thing and believe that it’s easy to deal with.

When people with a phobia feel that their friends or society have negative opinions of them, they might avoid situations where they feel like they will be judged by others. They’re also less likely to lean on their loved ones for support because they are embarrassed to talk about their anxiety.

How to Help Someone Who Has a Phobia

If you have a friend who was diagnosed with a specific phobia, you might be wondering: what can I do to support them?

One of the most helpful things you can do is be patient with them when they don’t feel comfortable going somewhere or doing something with you because of their phobia. Don’t force them into a situation that they don’t want to be in if they aren’t ready.

Furthermore, instead of joking around or making light of their fear, acknowledge the effect it has on them. Ask questions about their experience and lend a listening ear. Not only can this make your loved one feel heard and supported, but it will foster empathy and help you understand more. Another way to help is to encourage them to seek professional treatment and assist them with searching for the right therapist or doctor.

Phobias are one of the most common mental illnesses. The good news is, in many cases, they can be overcome with the right treatment. Exposure therapy, for example, has been proven to be effective in treating specific phobias.

Are you interested in learning more about mental health disorders to help break the stigma around mental health? Browse our Stigma-Free blog for more articles about various mental health disorders, and gain a better understanding of people’s experiences with mental illness. Check out our article on Understanding OCD, and Amanda’s Sprayberry’s story of her experience with bipolar II and schizoaffective disorder.

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