Magazine article FDA Consumer

Fighting Phobias: The Things That Go Bump in the Mind

Magazine article FDA Consumer

Fighting Phobias: The Things That Go Bump in the Mind

Article excerpt

From 50 yards away, you see the animal approaching. Silently it watches you as it slinks ever so much closer with each padded step. Stay calm, you tell yourself. There's nothing to fear.

But suddenly, panic seizes you in a death grip, squeezing the breath out of you and turning your knees to Jell-O. Your heart starts slam-dancing inside your chest, your mouth turns to cotton, and your palms are so sweaty you'd swear they'd sprung a leak. You'd escape this terrifying confrontation, if only you could make your legs work!

Just what is this wild and dangerous animal making you hyperventilate and turning your legs to rubber? A man-eating tiger, hungry for a meal? A lioness bent on protecting her cubs? Guess again. That's Tabby, your neighbor's ordinary house cat, sauntering your way. Ridiculous, right? How can anyone experience so much fear at the sight of such an innocuous animal? If you're one of the thousands who suffer from galeophobia--the fear of cats--or any one of hundreds of other phobias, sheer panic at the appearance of everyday objects, situations or feelings is a regular occurrence.

Irrational Fears

A phobia is an intense, unrealistic fear of an object, an event, or a feeling. An estimated 18 percent of the U.S. adult population suffers from some kind of phobia, and a person can develop a phobia of anything--elevators, clocks, mushrooms, closed spaces, open spaces. Exposure to these trigger the rapid breathing, pounding heartbeat, and sweaty palms of panic.

There are three defined types of phobias:

* specific or simple phobias--fear of an object or situation, such as spiders, heights or flying

* social phobias--fear of embarrassment or humiliation in social settings

* agoraphobia--fear of being away from a safe place.

No one knows for sure how phobias develop. Often, there is no explanation for the fear. In many cases, though, a person can readily identify an event or trauma--such as being chased by a dog--that triggered the phobia. What puzzles experts is why some people who experience such an event develop a phobia and others do not. Many psychologists believe the cause lies in a combination of genetic predisposition mixed with environmental and social causes.

Phobic disorders are classified as part of the group of anxiety disorders, which includes panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Several drugs regulated by the Food and Drug Administration are now being used to treat phobias and other anxiety disorders.

Dogs, Snakes, Dentists . . .

A person can develop a specific phobia of anything, but in most cases the phobia is shared by many and has a name. Animal phobias--cynophobia (dogs), equinophobia (horses), and zoophobia (all animals)--are common. So are arachnophobia (spiders) and ophidiophobia (snakes). And, of course, there's the fear of flying (pterygophobia), heights (acrophobia), and confined spaces (claustrophobia).

"One of the most common phobias is the fear of dentists [odontiatophobia]," says Sheryl Jackson, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "People who suffer with this phobia will literally let their teeth rot out because they are afraid to go to a dentist."

Jackson says that most specific phobias do not cause a serious disruption in a person's life, and, consequently, sufferers do not seek professional help. Instead, they find ways to avoid whatever it is that triggers their panic, or they simply endure the distress felt when they encounter it. Some may also consult their physicians, requesting medication to help them through a situation, such as an unavoidable plane trip for someone who is phobic about flying.

Drugs prescribed for these short-term situations include benzodiazepine antianxiety agents. These medications include two approved for treating anxiety disorders: Xanax (alprazolam) and Valium (diazepam). …

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