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Phobias

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Phobias

You may have heard of the concept of phobias. Many people have phobias. A few common examples are arachnophobia, a phobia of spiders, thalassophobia, a phobia of deep water, and claustrophobia, the fear of confined, enclosed spaces, which you may already know by name. Whether or not these fears are justified is what makes them a phobia.

Phobias Meaning

According to the DSM, Phobias are characterised by the following:

  1. Phobias are significantly prolonged reactions of fear to an object or situation

  2. They last for more than six months

  3. They induce a fear response (anxiety) when confronted by the phobia

  4. The fear response is not in proportion to the danger posed by the object of fear

  5. It causes individuals to go out of their way to avoid the object of fear, and this disrupts their ability to go about their lives significantly.

Overall:

  • Phobias tend to interfere in your daily life, unlike normal fear.
  • The fear is persistent, even if logically no threat exists.
  • The fear is intense and can induce panic attacks.
  • The individual feels powerless to control the fear.

Phobias, as they are acknowledged by the DSM, have clinical characteristics/symptoms as a result.

A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder. It is a persistent and irrational fear disproportionate to the real danger. The anticipation or presence of an object can cause fear.

Phobia Symptoms

Phobia symptoms vary in that they can be cognitive, behavioural, physical, or emotional.

  • Cognitive symptoms include an inability to focus on anything else, as anxiety consumes the thoughts and the person focuses on the object of fear.

  • Behavioural symptoms include a complete avoidance of the source of the phobia (such as refusing to attend social events, go outside, and being restless if they are forced into these scenarios).

  • Physical symptoms include anxiety-like symptoms, such as fight-or-flight responses upon confrontation with the feared object, an increased heart rate and sweating.

  • Emotional symptoms include feelings of fear, hopelessness, dread, and anything anxiety-like.

Phobias symptoms anxiety StudySmarterAnxiety as a symptom of phobias, Flaticon

How is Phobia Different from Fear?

Fear is a protective mechanism against any danger in the environment. Fear is healthy and normal in moderation when it is also appropriate to the scenario. It has an active period that lasts until the dangerous stimuli pass. A phobia is a persistent, irrational fear that produces an intense reaction to an object or situation.

Some small children have a fear of loud thunderstorms. Usually, the child will gradually overcome this fear as they grow up and learn the facts about thunderstorms. A girl with a phobia of thunderstorms cannot go to school because there is a thunderstorm forecast for that day.

Examples of Phobias

Let’s consider the following examples of phobias:

Anna is 23 years old and has had a phobia of balloons since she was 12. A balloon popped near her ear, and now loud noises give her severe anxiety. She avoids going to events where balloons might be present.

Hania is 18 years old, and she has a phobia of spiders. She saw her mother screaming and crying as a spider fell on her during her pre-teens. Even the mere sight of a spider gives her anxiety, and she immediately leaves that site.

Ella has a social phobia. She was bullied in her childhood, and now she avoids socialising. Even the thought of eating in front of a group of people gives her a severe anxiety attack.

Each example illustrates a different type of phobia and how this phobia developed from single or multiple instances.

Main Causes of Phobia

For A-level psychology, you need to know two explanations of phobias, the behavioural approach and the biological approach.

The behavioural approach to phobias

The two-process model by Mowrer (1947) suggests that phobias are learned by classical conditioning and maintained by operant conditioning. Classical conditioning describes the association of a previously neutral stimulus with an unpleasant emotion. The model states that phobias are sustained through reinforcement behaviour.

A cat scratches a child, who then associates the feeling of pain with the cat. The cat was a neutral stimulus, but after scratching the child, the child associated it with pain and has created a fear response to it.

A child who has learned the fear of cats in the previous example would change his path whenever he sees a cat lurking around on some pathways. In short, the child will avoid any situation involving cats, feeding their phobia for longer.

The behavioural approach has its critics. It doesn’t explain how people who have not had a traumatic experience can still have a phobia of something, e.g. snakes. However, the behavioural approach produced exposure therapy, which is used successfully to treat phobias.

A famous psychology experiment of classical conditioning is that of Watson and Raynor (1920). It is known as the ‘Little Albert experiment’. Pavlov’s experiment showed classical conditioning worked on animals, but Watson and Raynor wanted to test classical conditioning on a child. When Little Albert was 11 months old, Watson and Raynor tried to induce a phobia of white rats onto him.

At the start, Albert was neutral when shown a rat. They found out Albert was scared of the loud noise of a hammer hit against a steel bar. Thus, they started showing Albert the rat paired with the sound of a hammer against a steel bar. After several sessions, he was scared when he saw the rat alone and would cry and try to crawl away. This fear of the white rat also generalised to similar things such as a dog, fur coat, and Santa mask.

Little Albert Phobias StudySmarterLittle Albert classical condition fear, Wikimedia Commons

The biological approach to phobias

As opposed to the behavioural explanation, the biological approach outlines that humans have a genetic susceptibility to develop fears of specific situations or objects, such as fear of the dark or heights. This is to ensure survival, as fear of these things is grounded in reality falling from a significant height risks injury, and the dark is dangerous as we cannot see what lurks in it.

As Seligman (1970) suggests, humans have a biological tendency to develop certain phobias as they are adaptive in human history.

Humans who have stayed away from snakes are more likely to survive and are more likely to pass it on in their genes than others who did not.

Ohman et al. (1975) showed that people have a tendency, or evolutionarily prepared learning, to develop phobias to relevant stimuli. They showed participants fear-relevant stimuli (snakes) or irrelevant (houses or faces). The stimuli were paired with electric shocks. Learned responses to the irrelevant stimuli (houses and faces) disappeared but not with the relevant stimuli (snakes), showing a biological basis for fear-relevant phobias.

Cook et al. (1985) demonstrated that observational learning can also instil phobias. They had ten lab-reared rhesus monkeys watch two rhesus monkeys in the wild who had a strong fear of snakes. The lab-reared monkeys at the start had no fear of snakes, but they developed a fear after watching the monkeys in the wild.

In a later experiment in 1989, they tested whether phobias can be socially learned for fear of irrelevant objects. They made videos that appeared to show monkeys being scared of flowers and a toy rabbit. However, the observer monkeys did not learn this fear, showing that monkeys only develop phobias for evolutionarily prepared stimuli.

Types of Phobia

There are several types of phobia the DSM classifies fear into. These are:

  1. Specific phobias

  2. Agoraphobia

  3. Social phobia (social anxiety disorder)

Social Phobia

Social phobia is when someone experiences high anxiety levels when faced with a social gathering or situation. This anxiety can cause the person to perform poorly when in front of people, for example, while making a presentation. Social phobias consist of three further types as follows:

Performance phobia

As its name suggests, it occurs when performing in front of people, for example, solving a maths question on the teacher’s board.

Interaction phobia

Interactions or mixing with people may cause severe anxiety, for example, while answering interview questions for a prospective job.

Generalised phobia

A generalised phobia is a generalised anxiety people around you cause, especially in a large group or a crowd. Specific or simple objects in the environment can cause extreme anxiety, such as ophidiophobia (fear of snakes). Ophidiophobia is one of the most common forms of phobias. Simple phobias characterise four other types.

Specific or simple phobia

Objects in the environment can cause extreme anxiety, for example, ophidiophobia (fear of snakes). There are four further types under simple phobias.

Injury phobia

An example of injury phobia is hematophobia, anxiety when seeing blood.

Natural phobias

An example of a natural phobia is the fear of water (hydrophobia).

Situational phobia

A real-time situation causes a situational phobia, for example, fear of flying (or aerophobia).

Animal phobias

An example of an animal phobia is arachnophobia, the fear of spiders.

Phobias Arachnophobia StudySmarterArachnophobia is an example of an animal phobia, Flaticon

Agoraphobia

Agoraphobia is described as the fear of open spaces or being unable to escape to find help. Victims with agoraphobia may experience panic attacks when in open spaces, making them feel more vulnerable when outside. Such people would prefer to stay housebound because of their avoidance behaviour.

Phobias Treatment

There are two main phobia treatments, both based on the behavioural approach: systematic desensitisation and flooding.

Systematic desensitisation (SD)

Systematic desensitisation was developed in the 1950s. It relies on the idea that two opposites cannot coexist together, like anxiety and relaxation. The patient and their healthcare provider work together to design small steps on an anxiety scale from 1 to 10. Relaxation techniques are practised and taught so they can slowly replace anxiety.

For example, a spider phobia desensitisation treatment might include:

  • Looking at a photo of a spider

  • Watching a video of a spider

  • Staying in a room with a spider in a box placed in the corner

  • Moving the box into the middle of the room

  • Taking the lid off the box

  • Touching the spider for 1 second

  • Touching it for 5 seconds

  • Touching it for 1 minute

  • Touching it for 4 minutes

Flooding

As its name suggests, flooding is a one-time treatment. In this treatment, the patient is exposed to a room filled with the object of their phobia, e.g. spiders. This will cause the patient extreme anxiety, but eventually, they realise that spiders will not harm them.

Human beings cannot stay in a state of anxiety for an extended period. Slowly they calm down, unlearning the fear. However, this method can only be used with a patient’s consent as it may be traumatic and/or compromise their mental health.


Phobias - Key Takeaways

  • Fear is a protective mechanism that saves us from danger, whereas phobias are anxiety disorders, with irrational and persistent fear that interferes with your daily life.
  • The behavioural approach suggests that phobias are learned by classical conditioning and maintained by operant conditioning, according to the two-process model by Mowrer.
  • According to the biological approach, humans have a genetic tendency to fear certain situations and objects, as it increases the chances of survival.
  • There are three types of phobias: social phobia (fear of social gatherings/situations), simple phobia (fear of specific objects), agoraphobia (fear of open spaces).
  • There are two main treatments for phobias: systematic desensitisation (a step-by-step process to practise relaxation) and flooding (one-time direct exposure to the anxiety-causing stimulus).

Frequently Asked Questions about Phobias

Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder. It is persistent and irrational fear which is disproportionate to the real danger that exists. It can be caused by anticipation or the mere presence of an object or situation. For example, not becoming a doctor or surgeon because of the phobia of seeing blood.

Phobias can be caused by two main approaches in psychology, the behavioural approach, and the biological approach. 

 

  • The behavioural approach explains the causes of phobia through classical and operant conditioning. 
  • The biological approach suggests that humans have a genetic susceptibility to develop fears of certain situations or objects, such as fear of the dark or heights. 

Phobias tend to intervene in your daily life, unlike normal fear. The fear is persistent, even if you know that factually it does not exist. The fear is intense and irrational, and can also induce panic attacks. 

There are many different phobias out there. They fall within these three major categories.


  • Social phobia 
  • Simple or specific phobia
  • Agoraphobia 

Symptoms usually fall into the cognitive, behavioural, physical, and emotional categories. Examples include:


  • Dizziness or lightheaded
  • Nausea or vomiting 
  • Hot or cold flushes 
  • Increased heart rate or palpitations due to anxiety 
  • Sweating 

Final Phobias Quiz

Question

How are fear and phobia different from each other?

Show answer

Answer

Fear is a protective mechanism in humans and animals. It warns against danger. Phobia is an unusual and irrational persistent fear that interrupts our daily life.

Show question

Question

Hania is 18 years old, and she has a phobia of lizards. Which type of phobia does Hania have?

Show answer

Answer

Hania has a simple or specific phobia – animal phobia. 

Show question

Question

Outline one criticism of the behavioural approach.

Show answer

Answer

Many people who never experienced a negative stimulus such as snakes in real life still had an extreme fear of snakes. As suggested by the biological approach, humans have a genetic tendency to develop some fears, such as fear of the dark.

Show question

Question

What does flooding do to treat a phobia?

Show answer

Answer

It exposes the patient directly to the feared stimulus. 

Show question

Question

What is the main idea behind systematic desensitisation?

Show answer

Answer

Two opposites cannot coexist together, like anxiety and relaxation.

Show question

Question

Briefly explain the two-process model by Mowrer (1960).

Show answer

Answer

The two-process model by Mowrer (1947) suggests that phobias are learned by classical conditioning and maintained by operant conditioning.

Show question

Question

What did Seligman (1970) explain about the biological explanation to phobias?

Show answer

Answer

As Seligman (1970) suggests, humans have a biological tendency to develop certain phobias as they are adaptive in human history. Humans who have stayed away from snakes are more likely to survive and are more likely to pass it on in their genes than others who did not.

Show question

Question

What is a phobia in psychology?

Show answer

Answer

A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder. It is a persistent and irrational fear disproportionate to the real danger. The anticipation or presence of an object can cause fear.

Show question

Question

What are the characteristics of phobia?

Show answer

Answer

  • Phobias tend to intervene in your daily life, unlike normal fear. 
  • The fear is persistent, even if logically no threat exists.
  • The fear is intense and can induce panic attacks. 
  • The individual feels powerless to control the fear. 

Show question

Question

Define social phobia.

Show answer

Answer

Social phobia is when someone experiences high anxiety levels when faced with a social gathering or situation. This anxiety can cause the person to perform poorly when in front of people, for example, while making a presentation.

Show question

Question

Define simple or specific phobia.

Show answer

Answer

Specific or simple objects in the environment can cause extreme anxiety, for example, ophidiophobia (fear of snakes).

Show question

Question

Define agoraphobia.

Show answer

Answer

Agoraphobia is described as the fear of open spaces or being unable to escape to find help. Victims with agoraphobia may experience panic attacks when in open spaces, making them feel more vulnerable when outside. Such people would prefer to stay housebound because of their avoidance behaviour.

Show question

Question

Explain flooding as a treatment for phobia.

Show answer

Answer

As its name suggests, flooding is a one-time treatment. In this treatment, the patient is exposed to a room filled with the object of their phobia, e.g. spiders. This will cause the patient extreme anxiety, but eventually, they realise that spiders will not harm them.

Show question

Question

Explain systematic desensitisation.

Show answer

Answer

It relies on the idea that two opposites cannot coexist together, like anxiety and relaxation. The patient and their healthcare provider work together to design small steps on an anxiety scale from 1 to 10. Relaxation techniques are practised and taught so they can slowly replace anxiety.

Show question

Question

 What are the different types of social phobias?

Show answer

Answer

  • Performance phobia 

As its name suggests, it occurs when performing in front of people, for example, solving a maths question on the teacher’s board. 

  • Interaction phobia 

Interactions or mixing with people may cause severe anxiety, for example, while answering interview questions for a prospective job.

  • Generalised phobia

A generalised phobia is a generalised anxiety people around you cause, especially in a large group or a crowd. Specific or simple objects in the environment can cause extreme anxiety, such as ophidiophobia (fear of snakes). Ophidiophobia is one of the most common forms of phobias. Simple phobias characterise four other types.

Show question

Question

What are the different types of simple or specific phobias?

Show answer

Answer

  • Injury phobia
    • An example of injury phobia is hematophobia, anxiety when seeing blood.
  • Natural phobias 
    • An example of a natural phobia is the fear of water (hydrophobia).
  • Situational phobia
    • A real-time situation causes a situational phobia, for example, fear of flying (or aerophobia).
  • Animal phobias 
    • An example of an animal phobia is arachnophobia, the fear of spiders.

Show question

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