What Is A Phobia?

Phobias are learnt behavioral responses

A phobia is a learnt behavioral response. And often defined as a irrational or excessive fear of a object, living creature, place, thing or situation. The fear typically presents as a sense of extreme anxiety or fear along with a feeling of being in potential, actual or even mortal danger.

Phobics typically experience an overpowering need to avoid or steer clear of anything which triggers their fear. A phobia is evident when a person organizes their life around avoiding the object of their fear.

Your brain is trying to protect you

Paul Wright

One of the many jobs that your brain has is to protect you from danger. This is a built in instinct for survival of the species. So if your brain recognizes or senses anything it thinks is a threat or danger whether it be real, or a perceived potential threat the brain instinctively goes into the fight or flight protection mode.

For example someone suffering with claustrophobia may typically fear being trapped in an inescapable place or situation situation e.g. a lift causing them to worry that they may have a panic attack, become trapped, killed by the lift crashing or by suffocation. The thought of going in a lift will typically cause them to feel so anxious or scared that they will do what ever they can to avoid going into the lift.

Understandably because the phobic feels scared in the presence of the trigger/stimulus they typically develop a causal relationship belief that the object/thing/stimulus that triggers the fear is something that makes / causes them to feel scared. Or in other words in their mind because of the experiences they have had if feels like the external object/thing/trigger has a direct causal impact on their feelings and controls their response in the situation. However for many people it is this belief that the external object/thing/trigger has control over them which is the thing that keeps them locked into the fear.

Fight or flight response

In the fight or flight protection / survival mode large amounts of the hormone adrenaline is released into the bloodstream. Adrenaline is a naturally occurring hormone produced in the medulla of the adrenal glands which are located on the top of the kidneys. Adrenaline has an instant and very powerful effect on both the brain and body.

It is the release of adrenaline that causes the heart rate to increase, breathing becomes rapid and shallow. Blood pools around and enters the major muscle groups of the body preparing your body to be able to either run or fight. Non urgent bodily processes are slowed or temporarily shut down, i.e. digestion and the body can be prepared to evacuate undigested food which can cause some people to feel like they want to go to the toilet or vomit.

The release of adrenaline does not have to be due to an actual physical threat, it can also be caused by an imagined threat, strenuous exercise, heart failure, chronic stress, anxiety, a medical problem or a disorder of the brain or adrenal glands.

For many phobics the mere thought of their fear can make their brain to trigger the fight or flight response and trigger an Adrenaline release but because that causes their heart rate to increase along with all the other bio chemical, physiological effects of Adrenaline on the human body. The phobic notices their body’s physiological response and understandably but mistakenly because of the increased heart rate etc causing them to think they are in danger which re-triggers the fight or flight response.

The Anxiety Loop

Paul Wright

They then enter the Anxiety Loop where fear / anxiety triggers the fight or flight response > Adrenaline release > body’s physiological response > anxiety > fight or flight response etc etc.

While it would be considered normal to experience an adrenaline release in certain circumstances if you experience on going or extreme symptoms of adrenaline or anxiety in situations where there is no obvious reason to feel scared you should urgently consult your GP or other appropriate medical practitioner to rule out any underlying medical causes.

People with a phobia will often go to extreme lengths to avoid the situation or the perceived danger which is much greater in their mind than it is in real life. If exposed to the threat / situation the sufferer experiences enormous distress which in many cases can interfere with normal functioning life. In some cases the distress / anxiety can cause panic attacks which can be totally debilitating. In many cases this leads to the sufferer typically becoming afraid of having a panic attack.

However humans are not born phobic. Phobias are learnt behaviors and because of this it is possible to re-educate the brain to learn a new behavior in response to the trigger / stimulus.

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