According to a study by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), between 8.7 and 18.1 percent of all Americans suffer from some sort of phobia. The Mayo Clinic describes a phobia as “an overwhelming and unreasonable fear of an object or situation that poses little real danger.” Yet, for those afflicted with a phobia, these unreal dangers pose a very real threat to their quality of life.
It’s not just the name of a 1990 film starring John Goodman; arachnophobia is actually the most common phobia among people today. While nearly 60 percent of women and 20 percent of men in Western societies have, in some shape or form, a fear of spiders, arachnophobia takes a healthy fear to a crippling new level. Sufferers often avoid being barefoot, experience hyper-alertness when getting out of bed or the shower and generally live in a state of panic about confronting a spider.
What exactly causes such widespread fear of our eight-legged friends? While an evolutionary link has yet to be found, recent studies suggest that the fear of spiders may be inherited from our mothers. A joint study from the University of South Carolina Upstate and Indiana State University found that unborn crickets actually develop a fear of spiders based on their mother's traumatic experiences with the creatures. "The transfer of information from mother to offspring about predation risk…may be more common than one might think," said Jonathan Storm, who spearheaded the study. While studies have yet to show conclusive evidence that humans experience the same in-utero fear development, scientists believe this theory merits further study.
The fear of being judged by a crowd may seem non-existent in our celebrity-driven, reality show culture; however, approximately three million Americans between the ages of 18 and 54 suffer from acute agoraphobia. That number accounts for more than two percent of all people in that age group.
Agoraphobia is more commonly referred to as social anxiety disorder. It speaks to the devastating social consciousness that makes individuals feel as though their words and actions leave them open to a constant stream of criticism, embarrassment and humiliation. It is not as simple as a fear of public speaking, a fear many Americans also face. Agoraphobia often makes it impossible for its victims to function in social situations; from sweating to shaking to temporary muteness, being in public spaces can be physically overwhelming.
Researchers are at odds over just what causes agoraphobia with some believing it to be caused by hereditary factors while others say it is a biochemical condition. Since the cause is still a mystery, treatment is also still the topic of debate. Doctors will often treat agoraphobia with a combination of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy. Studies are ongoing, and scientists are optimistic about improving the life quality of individuals afflicted with agoraphobia.
Sometimes referred to as aerophobia, aviatophobia, aviophobia or pteromechanophobia, fear of flying is typically developed in an afflicted person following a traumatic experience. The experience can be personal (being involved in an accident/disturbance or losing a loved one) or impersonal (news footage, movies or television shows involving crashes).
Sufferers from aerophobia can typically just forgo plane travel, opting to instead use other forms of transit. However, for those whose professional careers depend upon constant travel or whose families live far away, aerophobia can be crippling. The most severe cases result in panic attacks and nausea at the mere sight of a plane. Education about the unlikelihood of a crash, paired with some sort of behavioral, cognitive or hypnosis therapy can typically help overcome the fear. However, for extreme cases, doctors can prescribe anxiety-relieving medications.
Many people claim to be claustrophobic, but only about five to seven percent of people actually suffer from acute claustrophobia, or fear of confined spaces. This phobia typically manifests itself as an anxiety disorder resulting in panic attacks. Victims fear restriction, suffocation and the inability to escape, not necessarily the space itself. If placed in a situation where they are overcome by these fears, a victim of claustrophobia will sometimes begin shedding their clothes in an attempt to free themselves of the restraint.
S. J. Rachman, an internationally recognized leader in the cognitive study of anxiety disorders, has published several studies on the topic of claustrophobia treatment. From cognitive therapy to interoceptive exposure, he has been a leader in the ongoing battle against claustrophobia. However, it was his study on in vivo exposure (direct confrontation with the feared object/situation) that proved to be one of the most successful in history. Starting with basic exposure such as riding an elevator, and working up to severe exposure such as an MRI, Rachman was able to decrease fear and negative thoughts by 75 percent. This method is the one most typically suggested for claustrophobia sufferers.
If you or someone you know is suffering with a phobia, review the American Psychological Association’s article Figuring out Phobia. The article can be found online at www.apa.org/monitor/julaug05/figuring.aspx. For additional information and help locating treatment and other resources in your area, visit the National Institute of Mental Health website at www.nimh.nih.gov.