Can Phobias Be Classified As A Medical Condition?

An estimated 9.1% of people in America have specific phobias, reports the National Institute of Mental Health, with up to 21.9% having serious impairments that affect their quality of life. This issue affects teens as well, with around 19.3% of adolescents having a specific phobia. Despite the fact that phobias can make life mildly, moderately, or severely challenging for millions, only 23% of those who experience them seek treatment. In fact, phobias – which are medically considered a type of anxiety – should be taken seriously, since prompt diagnosis and treatment can help those in need overcome many phobias and enjoy their life more fully.

Most Common Phobias

Just a few phobias which are prevalent in the U.S. include the fear of flying, enclosed spaces, insects, snakes, dogs, storms, and needles. Some people fear losing their lives because they are in an environment that they cannot control – for instance, the water. The fear of drowning can stop people from enjoying a swim – even in a shallow pool – since they can be overtaken by anxiety at the sight of the glistening water. The irony, of course, is that fearing water makes them more vulnerable to it. This is because people who lack swimming ability have higher drowning risks than those who don’t, and gaining water confidence will, in fact, make them safer. 

Overcoming Phobias

There are steps people with phobias can take. In the example of swimming, this might include wearing a life jacket, requesting supervision while swimming, and avoiding alcohol: these steps can make a swim almost 100% safe. For most phobias, slow exposure to the thing that is feared, is recommended, although in some cases, other therapies and/or medication may also be recommended. These might include sedatives or beta blockers, and are normally prescribed only for severe cases. Thus, those who fear flying may be encouraged to try a flight simulator, to sit in a plane, and to take a short flight, progressively. Those who fear swimming may be asked to wade their feet in a shallow pool and be given swimming lessons with a coach who will help allay their fears. A therapist may also recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) so clients can learn alternative ways to understand and process their fears and bodily sensations, and to feel more in control of their thoughts and emotions (instead of being overwhelmed by them).

Phobias Are Not Simple Fear

Despite the fact that many phobias can be treated and successfully overcome, it is important to recognize phobias for the medical condition that they are. Phobias are considered a form of anxiety – one characterized by an overwhelming fear of a place, situation, person, thing, animal, or experience. Phobias invoke the ‘fight or flight’ response, since those who have them avoid the source of their phobia at all costs, sometimes having difficulty functioning because of the intense fear they feel. The symptoms of a phobia are similar to those encountered during a panic attack. They can include feeling dizzy, fainting, having a racing heartbeat, sweating, feeling a sensation of tightness in the chest, and having difficulty breathing.

Phobias are experienced by millions of Americans. Those who have severe phobias can have a diminished quality of life. It is important to see phobias as potentially serious medical conditions that can hamper one’s health and happiness. Treatment (which can involve exposure therapy and CBT) can help people feel more in control of their fears until they dissipate.