Specific phobias

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Definition

Specific phobia is a type of disorder in which the affected individual displays a marked and enduring fear of specific situations or objects. Individuals with specific phobias experience extreme fear as soon as they encounter a defined situation or object, a phobic stimulus. For example, an individual with a specific phobia of dogs will become anxious when coerced to confront a dog. The specific phobia triggers a lot of distress or significantly impairs an affected individual.

Mental health professionals use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM) to diagnose mental disorders. The 2000 edition of this manual (the Fourth Edition Text Revision, also called the DSM-IV-TR) classifies specific phobia as a type of anxiety disorder. Formerly, specific phobia was known as simple phobia. In the last few years, mental health professionals have paid more attention to specific phobias.

Description

Specific phobia has a unique position among the anxiety disorders in that individuals with this disorder do not experience pervasive anxiety nor do they seek treatment as readily as individuals with other anxiety disorders. Unlike individuals with other anxiety disorders, the fear of individuals with specific phobias is limited to defined situations or objects. Individuals with specific phobias experience impairment or a significant amount of anguish. They may lead restricted lifestyles depending upon the phobia type. Adults and adolescents with specific phobias recognize that their fear is unreasonable. Children, on the other hand, may not recognize that their fear of the phobic stimulus is unreasonable or extreme.

The types of specific phobias include situational, object, and other. The situational type is diagnosed if an individual's fear is cued by a defined situation. Examples include situations such as flying, enclosed places, tunnels, driving, bridges, elevators, or public transportation. Object types include animal, natural environment, and blood-injection-injury types. Animal type is diagnosed if an individual's fear is cued by animals or insects. Natural environment type is diagnosed if an individual's fear is cued by storms, water, or heights. Blood-injection-injury type is diagnosed if an individual's fear is cued by seeing an injury or blood or by an injection or other invasive medical treatment. Other type is diagnosed if an individual's fear is cued by other stimuli such as fears of vomiting, choking, becoming ill, and falling down if far from a means of physical support, and a child's fears of loud noises or characters in costumes.

Researchers have found that the frequency of type for adults in clinical settings, from least to most frequent, is: animal, blood-injection-injury, natural environment, and situational. The most common phobias for community samples, however, include phobias of heights, mice, spiders, and insects.

Causes and symptoms

Causes

The development of a specific phobia may be determined by a variety of factors. Behavioral, cognitive, and social theories of learning and conditioning, psychody-namic models such as the psychoanalytic theory of Freud, physiological studies of the brain, family background and genetic predisposition, variations in sociocul-tural themes, and theories on trauma can influence the development of specific phobia disorder. Some theorists propose that biological researchers have ignored specific phobias because pharmacological treatment is not the treatment of choice for this disorder.

LEARNING AND CONDITIONING CAUSES. As of

2002, research on phobias focuses on information-processing, learning, and conditioning themes. Learning to experience fear is the core of a conditioning perspective. Informational and instructional factors can result in the formation of fears. For example, an individual who frequently hears of plane crashes in the news may develop a specific phobia of flying. Research shows that individuals with specific phobias pay more attention to information about danger than do individuals who do not have specific phobias. Vicarious acquisition occurs when an individual witnesses a traumatic event or sees another individual behave with fear when confronting a phobic stimulus. Direct conditioning occurs when an individual is frightened by a phobic stimulus.

A major determinant of specific phobias is conditioning. Association and avoidance are types of conditioning. In association conditioning, a stimulus that was initially neutral begins to trigger an anxiety response. For example, if an individual was driving one day and experienced a strong anxiety response, an association may form between driving and anxiety. Individuals do not learn to become phobic until they begin to avoid. In avoidance conditioning, individuals learn to avoid a stimulus that triggers anxiety. Every time individuals avoid the phobic stimulus—driving, for example—they are rewarded by the relief from anxiety.

TRAUMATIC CAUSES. A determinant of specific phobias includes traumas. For example, individuals who have been attacked by a dog may develop a specific phobia disorder and become conditioned to fear dogs. Individuals who observe others experiencing a trauma (the others are "modeling" behavior for the individual who will be affected) may become predisposed to developing specific phobia disorder. For example, individuals who witness people falling from a building may develop a specific phobia disorder. Phobias with a traumatic origin may develop acutely, or, in other words, have a more sudden onset than other phobias that develop more gradually.

PSYCHODYNAMIC CAUSES. Psychodynamic theorists explain that phobias emerge because individuals have impulses that are unacceptable, and they repress these impulses. More specifically, Freud proposed that phobias emerge because of an unresolved oedipal conflict. According to Freud's theory, an oedipal conflict is a developmental conflict that emerges during the third (or oedipal) stage of Freud's psychosexual development stages. During this stage, a conflict emerges with regard to the triad of father, mother, and child. The conflict concerns the sexual impulses that the child has toward the parent of the opposite gender and the hostile impulses that the child has towards the parent of the same gender. During this stage, the developmental conflict concerns a

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Getting to Know Anxiety

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