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Article title: Phobia: NWHIC
Phobias occur in several forms. A specific phobia is a fear of a particular object or situation. Social phobia is a fear of being painfully embarrassed in a social setting. And agoraphobia, which often accompanies panic disorder, is a fear of being in any situation that might provoke a panic attack, or from which escape might be difficult if one occurred.
Many people experience specific phobias, intense irrational fears of certain things or situations -- dogs, closed-in places, heights, escalators, tunnels, highway driving, water, flying, and injuries involving blood are a few of the more common ones. Phobias arenít just extreme fear; they are irrational fear. Adults with phobias realize their fears are irrational but often facing, or even thinking about facing, the feared object or situation brings on a panic attack or severe anxiety.
Specific phobias strike more than 1 in 10 people. No one knows just what causes them, though they seem to run in families and are a little more prevalent in women. Phobias usually first appear in adolescence or adulthood. They start suddenly and tend to be more persistent than childhood phobias; only about 20 percent of adult phobias vanish on their own. When children have specific phobias -- for example, a fear of animals -- those fears usually disappear over time, though they may continue into adulthood. No one knows why they hang on in some people and disappear in others.
If the object of the fear is easy to avoid, people with phobias may not feel the need to seek treatment. Sometimes, though, they may make important career or personal decisions to avoid a phobic situation.
When the phobias interfere with a personís life, treatment can help. Successful treatment usually involves a kind of cognitive-behavioral therapy called desensitization or exposure therapy, in which patients are gradually exposed to what frightens them until the fear begins to fade. Three-fourths of patients benefit significantly from this type of treatment. Relaxation and breathing exercises also help reduce anxiety symptoms.
There is currently no proven drug treatment for specific phobias, but sometimes certain medications may be prescribed to help reduce anxiety symptoms before someone faces a phobic situation.
Social phobia is an intense fear of becoming humiliated in social situations, specifically of embarrassing yourself in front of other people. It often runs in families and may be accompanied by depression or alcoholism. Social phobia often begins around early adolescence or even younger.
If you suffer from social phobia, you tend to think that other people are very competent in public and that you are not. Small mistakes you make may seem to you much more exaggerated than they really are. Blushing itself may seem painfully embarrassing, and you feel as though all eyes are focused on you. You may be afraid of being with people other than those closest to you. Or your fear may be more specific, such as feeling anxious about giving a speech, talking to a boss or other authority figure, or dating. The most common social phobia is a fear of public speaking. Sometimes social phobia involves a general fear of social situations such as parties. More rarely, it may involve a fear of using a public restroom, eating out, talking on the phone, or writing in the presence of other people, such as signing a check.
Although this disorder is often thought of as shyness, the two are not the same. Shy people can be very uneasy around others, but they donít experience the extreme anxiety in anticipating a social situation, and they donít necessarily avoid circumstances that make them feel self-conscious. In contrast, people with social phobia arenít necessarily shy at all. They can be completely at ease with people most of the time, but particular situations, such as walking down an aisle in public or making a speech, can give them intense anxiety. Social phobia disrupts normal life, interfering with career or social relationships. For example, a worker can turn down a job promotion because he canít give public presentations. The dread of a social event can begin weeks in advance, and the symptoms can be quite debilitating.
People with social phobias are aware that their feelings are irrational. Still, they experience a great deal of dread before facing the feared situation, and they may go out of their way to avoid it. Even if they manage to confront what they fear, they usually feel very anxious beforehand and are intensely uncomfortable throughout. Afterwards, the unpleasant feelings may linger, as they worry about how they may have been judged or what others may have thought or observed about them.
About 80 percent of people who suffer from social phobia find relief from their symptoms when treated with cognitive-behavioral therapy or medications or a combination of the two. Therapy may involve learning to view social events differently; being exposed to a seemingly threatening social situation in such a way that it becomes easier to face; and learning anxiety-reducing techniques, social skills, and relaxation techniques.
The medications that have proven effective include antidepressants called MAO inhibitors. People with a specific form of social phobia called performance phobia have been helped by drugs called beta-blockers. For example, musicians or others with this anxiety may be prescribed a beta-blocker for use on the day of a performance.
You can find out more about anxiety disorders and their treatments by contacting the following organizations:
Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy
305 7th Avenue
New York, NY 10001
Freedom from Fear
308 Seaview Avenue
Staten Island, NY 10305
National Mental Health Consumersí Self-Help Clearinghouse 1-800-553-4539
PO Box 1180
Palm Springs, CA 92263
National Mental Health Association 1-800-969-6642
National Alliance for the Mentally Ill 1-800-950-6264
This information was abstracted from Anxiety Disorders, National Institute of Mental Health.
All material contained in the FAQs is free of copyright restrictions, and may be copied, reproduced, or duplicated without permission of the Office on Women's Health in the Department of Health and Human Services; citation of the sources is appreciated.
Publication date: 1998
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