When does a fear become a debilitating phobia?

Phobias are much more than a fear or a dislike – they can be debilitating. Experts say about eight per cent of Australians suffer from a phobia of specific things like spiders, injections and vomit. So when does a fear become a full-blown phobia? And what’s the best way to treat them?

Phobias can range from the logical (arachnophobia or the fear of spiders) to the seemingly bizarre (pteronophobia or the fear of being tickled by feathers). And while some may scoff at conditions like pentheraphobia, the fear of mother-in-laws, or pogonophobia, the fear of beards, phobias are no laughing matter.

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Experts tell Insight that about eight per cent of Australians suffer from a phobia of specific things like spiders, injections and vomit. The first symptoms of a phobia usually emerge in childhood or early adolescence.

There are also more women than men who report having phobias, but this might be because men tend to self-medicate or avoid talking about their phobias.

Other people have social phobias, meaning they have acute anxiety about being criticised, embarrassed or humiliated, even in the most ordinary situations.

“Most us have fears, they’re evolutionary significant, they help us to survive as a species,” Insight guest and clinical psychologist Dr Rocco Crino says.

“But with a phobia, I think that the fear is such that it stops the individual functioning.”

Many will experience shaking, sweating, irrational thinking, nausea, difficulty breathing, and an overwhelming desire to escape the situation that is causing the phobic reaction. Extreme measures are sometimes taken to avoid or escape the situation.

“It’s overwhelming, it is the fight or flight response. So people freeze or they try and get out of that situation. The fear is absolutely overwhelming.”

So when does an ordinary fear become a full-blown phobia? And what’s the best way to treat them? This week’s Insight brings together people with different phobias and hears from experts about the different treatments including exposure therapy, hypnotherapy and even a new pill.

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