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A phobia is a group of symptoms brought on by an object or situation that causes a person to feel irrational fear. For example, a person terrified by a snake poised to strike only a few feet away on a hiking trail experiences normal fear, while a person terrified by a snake in a glass cage would be said to be having a phobic reaction. A person suffering from a phobia may dwell on the object of his or her fear when it is not present. People have been known to have phobic fears of things as common as running water, dirt, dogs, or high places. One in 10 people develop a phobia at some time in their lives.

In addition to a feeling of panic or dread when the situation is harmless, the emotional symptoms of the anxiety disorders known as phobias include uncontrollable and automatic terror or dread that seems to take over a person's thoughts and feelings and avoidance of what will trigger the intense fear. Often this avoidance disrupts a phobic's everyday life. Physical symptoms of phobia include shortness of breath, trembling, rapid heartbeat, and an overwhelming urge to run. These symptoms are often so strong that they prevent phobic people from taking action to protect themselves.

Phobias are usually divided into three groups. Simple phobias involve the fear of a certain object, such as an animal or a telephone. Other simple phobias are caused by a specific situation like being in a high place (acrophobia), flying on an airplane, or being in an enclosed space (claustrophobia). The second type of irrational fear, social phobia, is triggered by social situations. Usually people with social phobias are afraid of being humiliated when they do something in front of others, such as speaking in public or even eating.

When people suffer from the third type, agoraphobia, they panic at a number of situations. They fear so many things, like riding busses, being in crowds, and going to public places where strangers are present, that they sometimes will not leave their homes. Agoraphobia is the most common of the irrational fears.

Phobias can come about for a number of reasons. Behaviorists believe that these intense fears begin when people are classically conditioned by a negative stimulus paired with the object or situation. In other words, phobias are learned. Sometimes parents may pass irrational fears on to their children in this way. According to psychoanalysts who follow the teachings of Sigmund Freud, a phobia arises when a person represses sexual fantasies.

One of the most effective treatments for phobias is a behavior therapy called exposure. The phobic is exposed to what is feared in the presence of the therapist and directly confronts the object or situation that causes terror. Slow exposure is called desensitization. Rapid exposure to what is feared most and remaining there until anxiety levels drop is called flooding. In addition to being effective, such treatment is usually quick and inexpensive.

In addition to being treated with behavior therapy, phobics are sometimes given antianxiety drugs in order to lower their feelings of panic. Antidepressants are also used to control panic. Other phobics are given tranquilizers, but often must take them for long periods of time in order for the drugs to be effective.

Kay Marie Porterfield

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Philosophy of Mind - Early Ideas to Planck length