Many people claim to be afraid of spiders, but probably not to the degree of 37-year-old "Mary Muffet" of Seattle. Mary went to many lengths to be spider-free, including sealing her windows and doors with duct tape, spraying her car with bug killer, and putting every single piece of washed and ironed clothing into its own sealed plastic bag. She wasn't just afraid of spiders; she had arachnophobia, a phobia, not to be confused with a simple fear. Phobias are not simple; they are complex in both their origin and diagnosis, with many types that people suffer from and any number of treatments exist to date.
What is a phobia?
Phobias are described as "a persistent, irrational fear of an object, activity or situation that compels a person to avoid it, and causes distress and function impairment" (Yahoo! Health, 2002). For example, a normal person who is afraid of high places and has a friend that lives on the top floor of a tall building would probably not stop visiting that friend. On the other hand, a person with acrophobia (fear of heights) would. By definition, a phobia is irrational. If a fear prevents a person from enjoying life or it preoccupies thoughts in a way that the person is unable to work, sleep or function as they would like to, the fear becomes irrational and is termed a phobia. The many phobic people who think their fears are silly, childish, or trivial often try to conceal them. While hiding from their fears they hide their phobias from others, further limiting their experience of life. Although "normal" anxiety is adaptive- that is, it helps you to survive and be productive- too much anxiety can be crippling. People who suffer from certain patterns of signs and symptoms related to anxiety are considered by mental health specialists to have anxiety disorders. Phobias and panic attacks are the most common of these disorders.
What causes a phobia?
There is currently insufficient research in the field of phobias to determine a definite, clear cause. What is known is that phobias are common in children and do not represent an abnormality. Phobias can start in childhood or adulthood. Some people have suddenly become terrified of things they've been doing for years, somewhat like a flight attendant that suddenly begins to have panic attacks on her 500th flight. In most cases, phobias are thought to branch from a confrontation with the feared object or situation. "Six of every ten persons who suffer phobias are able to remember when the fear crisis occurred for the first time, i.e., when the sensation of panic became attached to the place or situation where it first happened" (Masci, 2002, p.2). Most phobias do not interfere with an individual's normal functioning to the point of seeking treatment. There is usually no family history of mental illness or of the same phobia. For example, a person with claustrophobia (fear of being in small-enclosed spaces such as an elevator) does not necessarily have a relative that is...