In this continuing series on Anxiety Disorders, we’ve talked about general anxiety, negative imagination, and worry. Now let’s talk about phobia.
What Is Phobia?
A phobia is an excessive, persistent fear of a situation, activity, or thing that makes you want to avoid it. It is a based on a survival tool called pattern matching where the brain is able to associate one dangerous thing with another to save time in choosing safety. Phobia ranges from fairly mild and humorous to severe and debilitating.
Some conservative estimates indicate that more than 6 million Americans suffer with phobia. People who experience phobia often also experience other anxiety issues such as panic disorder, PTSD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or others.
All Shapes And Sizes
There are many varieties of phobia. Some experts say there are as many phobias as there are situations. So what does it look like to have a phobia. The following is one woman’s experience of phobia:
Marci walked into the office with moist eyes. Even before she sat on the couch her tears were streaming down her cheeks. Handing her a tissue, I said, “Tell me what’s going on.”
“I’m a terrible mother!” Marci cried. The words then tumbled out in a torrent, a story of her son’s 3rd birthday party where a close friend had brought balloons and a beautiful cake for little Jason.
The party was held poolside in Marci’s back yard. Marci’s friend and neighbor walked through the living room, out the patio door and onto the pool deck balancing the cake in one hand and holding balloons in the other. Jason was so excited that he ran laughing to his mother to tell her that he had a cake.
Marci turned around and saw her friend coming toward her. What happened next took everyone by surprise. She began to shriek “like a crazy person”, threw her hands up in front of her face, thrashing, and pushed the cake out of her friend’s hands and into the pool. Marci then ran into the house and sat trembling and rocking on the couch in the front room.
Marci’s friend got Jason and the other party guests settled playing a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. She then went in to check on Marci. Marci was cowering in a corner of the couch, rocking. Slowly sitting down near her friend, she said softly, “Marci, what just happened?”
Marci looked up from telling her story, and as her soft brown eyes met mine, she said in a whisper, “I don’t know what happened? I can’t stand…. balloons. I’m afraid of…balloons. They scare the crap out of me. Not just a little. They terrify me. What’s the matter with me?”
The more I learned of Marci’s history the more convinced I was that she suffered with globophobia, or fear of balloons. I learned that Marci had been afraid of balloons since she was a pre-teen. Over time she had developed panic symptoms (racing heart, shortness of breath, trembling, etc.) when around balloons or if she believed she was going to be near balloons. Other than her phobia, she had very few other anxiety symptoms.
Coping With Phobia
Marci had learned to cope with her phobia by avoiding anything, and everything, associated with balloons, such as children’s parties. She had trained her family members to help run interference for her by having them check out certain venues where balloons might be, such as the Labour & Delivery unit at the hospital when Jason was born. Marci struggled to discuss balloons but unlike some people who suffer with this phobia, at least she was able to say the word without developing panic. Yet it clearly made her very uncomfortable to talk about it.
We used hypnotherapy to break-up Marci’s globophobia. That gave her immediate relief. Then some cognitive-behavioral therapy helped her to change the thinking patterns that had grown her fear and kept it alive in her imagination. Marci chose to pursue the source of her phobia in therapy but many people have no desire to know where the phobia comes from. And it isn’t always necessary to know that in order to let go of the phobia.
Phobia is just one more place where anxiety shows up in life. For those who experience phobias it can feel like they are being controlled by unreasonable forces. Many people feel a great deal of shame when they cannot force themselves to ignore the anxiety and panic that arise from their phobia.
Phobias are another example of sloppy pattern matching, a survival tool gone wrong. But phobias don’t have to rule your life. If you struggle with a phobia, call today to take back the control.
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