A phobia can be defined as an intense uncontrolled and irrational fear of specific items, activities, animals or individuals. People suffering from phobias usually suffer from anxiety attacks when they find themselves in or close to the situations, objects or the individuals they have fear of. Phobias are more often acquired through traumatic experiences though some of them are inherent to the victims. If left untreated, phobias are liable to cause long term damage on the mental and physical health of an individual, and a recent study by National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in America revealed that phobias are a common disorder in 19% of the population especially in women.
The concept of phobias
Several theories and explanations have been put forth in an attempt to clearly define phobia in order to provide a standardized criteria for diagnosis and treatment. Different scientific departments dealing with mental health and disorders and psychological processes all have different mutually exclusive definitions of the behavioral phenomena and their causes.
Also known as the ultimate concept of phobias, scientists in the evolutionary field believe that phobias came into existence through evolutionary processes (Edmund 57). Evolution is considered to perform a key role in ensuring the survival of human beings and through adaptation, individuals subconsciously learnt what is dangerous to them and developed a fear of it (Mathews 16). The argument is that the uneven distribution of fear is pre- selected on an individual through constant exposure of individual’s ancestry to the object of fear (Eysenc 22). Consequently, an individual will suffer from the primal fear of an object or organism they have never come into contact with (Davey 3). This concept is used by scientists to explain why for example a person would be suffering from an immense fear of snakes, yet that person has never come into close contact with a snake. Photographs or imagery of snakes are however likely to trigger an intense feeling of fear or anxiety in the individual. The evolutionary concept by and large does define phobias as inherited fear that is genetically passed on to an individual.
Recent developments in the neurological field have greatly aided scientists in understanding the functions of the brain. Though not fully understood, most bodily and mental processes functions can now be attributed to specific parts of the brain. It is in line with such studies that phobias can now be understood and defined in neurological terms. Hormones have been attributed to the involuntary response an individual has when suffering from phobia induced anxiety (Mathews 34). A part of the brain known as the amygdala located behind the pituitary gland in the limbic system is responsible for secreting these hormones (Schwartz 1). When an individual is in a situation that provides ample conditions for a phobic reaction, the amygdala is stimulated and secretes hormones (Stein 65). These hormones work on the nervous system to control fear and the release of adrenaline. The excessive stimulation of the nervous system is what leads to anxiety and panic attacks associated with phobias. The anatomical concept attempts to define phobias through bodily functions and the bodily reactions that consequently lead to the manifestation of the phobia (Davey 2).
The psychological or proximate concept is by far the most extensive and widely studied definition of phobias. This concept explore the field of human learning where individuals have to coherently or subconsciously receive a certain amount of input or experience before they can generate a certain output or reaction(Stein 99). Learning is therefore heavily dependent on the biological predisposition of an individual because the phobias are randomly selective and they are in one way or the other important to human beings since they have not been phased out by evolution (Schwartz 1). Psychologists argue that phobias are essentially vital for the sustainability of human life; otherwise they would have been eliminated through evolution.
The fact that phobias are not arbitrary support this view, because phobias will usually manifest when engaging in activities or dealing with people or organisms that are more or less dangerous (Eysenck 59). Phobias can also be learnt in one trial and therefore are not entirely dependant on genetics. If for example an individual has a traumatic experience, it is likely that a phobia for that situation may take root in the victim. Say the lift they are travelling in snaps and plummets to the basement of a tall building. A survivor will leave that scene with a mortal fear of lifts and will do everything to avoid them. Therefore, psychologically speaking, phobias are learnt by individuals and can hence be defined as an adapted intense fear off certain objects, activities, organisms or people acquired through experience and the environment (Edmund 68).
Phobias according to scientific research can be associated with the three fields of medicine. However, a greater extent of phobias is psychological and through psychological analysis can a phobia be identified. The anatomical concept is relevant when working towards the cure of phobias. By understanding the internal mechanisms of the human body of individuals suffering from phobia, medicinal remedies to counteract such effects become easier to produce. The anatomical and psychological concepts are therefore complementary in function and only through both can phobias be diagnosed and cured.
Davey, Gerald T. “Preparedness and phobias: Specific evolved associations or a generalized expectancy bias?” Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Retrieved on January 14 2010 from: http://www.bbsonline.org/Preprints/OldArchive/bbs.davey.html
Edmund, Bourne L. The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook, 4th edition. Kansas: New Harbinger Publications, 2005.
Eysenck, Hans G. You and Neurosis. 1st edition. London: Macmillan, 1977.
Mathews Albert K. Why worry? The cognitive function of anxiety. Behavior Research & Therapy. 2nd edition. London: gateway publishers, 1990.
Schwartz, Allan P. “Social Phobia and Self Concept and the Brain”. Retrieved on January 14 2010 from: http://www.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=28950&w=5&cn=1
Stein, Dan T. Clinical Manual of Anxiety Disorders. 1st edition. New York: American Psychiatric Press, 2004.