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Occurrence and Treatment of Specific Phobias

November 20, 2013

Phobias are a common occurrence in today’s society, fears can be as ordinary as nyctophobia (fear of the dark), claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces) to fears being reported as absurd as Anatidaephobia (fear you are being watched by a duck). With some researchers reporting figures as high as 21.2% women and 10.9% of men meeting criteria for having a specific phobia (Fredikson, Annas, Fischer, Wik, 1996) research into the acquiring and treatment of phobias is beneficial to sufferers.

Phobias are classified in the latest DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5; 2013) as an anxiety disorder separated into three subcategories: social phobia, specific phobia and Agoraphobia. A specific phobia is described as a persistent fear of an object or animal (spiders, beans, planes etc) which is often acknowledged as being irrational (Bourne 2011). Upon contact or near proximity to the specific stimulus, sufferers feel severe distress and display symptoms of anxiety including; racing heart, dizziness, nausea and can lead to a sense of dread and panic attacks (NHS, 2013).

Researchers have proposed many plausible explanations for the occurrence of specific phobias. Some of the earliest and most notable research into fears and phobias was conducted by Freud (1909) and Watson and Rayner (1919). Freud concluded from his research about Hans (five year old boy with a specific phobia of horses) that his fear was of his father but was displaced onto horses. On later analysis, Wolpe and Rachman criticised the research and interpreted the evidence differently to find that Hans’ fear of horses derived from an earlier experience in which Hans felt feelings of strong fear whilst in the presence of horses.

This classical conditioning of fears is further supported by Watson and Raynors classical study on Little Albert. Albert, a little boy, was conditioned onto having a fear of rats: a loud noise was made which scared the boy whenever he touched a rat. The neutral stimulus (rat) was presented at the same time as an unconditioned stimulus (loud noise) which resulted in a conditioned stimulus in which the boy was afraid (rat). This all supports the learning theory of acquiring phobias.

Phobias are a keen part of survival: learning not to avoid a stimulus or situation which was previously fearful keeps us out of danger. In this way phobic stimuli such as heights, dogs, spiders and snakes can all be related to evolution of survival. Avoiding dangerous situations which involve these stimuli will keep a person safe and therefore have a heightened chance of survival (Davey, 1999).

However, as mentioned earlier, phobias can often be described as irrational. Irrational fears have no place in survival: being scared of and avoiding small spiders, photos of spiders etc will not aid in survival. Phobias can lower a persons quality of life (McEvoy et al 2011). If a person lives or is constantly in close proximity to a phobic stimulus (such as they work on the 8th floor of building, but have a phobia of elevators) then this can impact their daily lives. If this sufferer has extreme symptoms the thought of the elevator to work could bring up panic attacks etc which could effect a person mentally. This case highlights the importance of work on treatments of phobias.

If as mentioned, phobias are learnt behaviours and motivations and fear is the conditioned response, then it should be simple to uncondition.

With regards to the neurology of phobias, the amygdala has been found to be strongly linked. The amygdala processes fear which is the main emotion described when a sufferer is faced with a phobic stimulus. Whalen & Phelps (2009) found that the amygdala responds to fear using a system similar to classical conditioning (fear conditioning). It creates a conditioned response to fear that is often seen in the reactions of people with a specific phobia.

To uncondition this response in the brain and to see this in our behaviour, researchers can eliminate the fear response ans symptoms of the phobia by counter-conditioning relaxation to the phobic stimulus in replace of fear (Wolpe and Lazarus 1969).

Overall, the majority of the research into phobias supports the learning theory and so the treatments used to desensitise the fear should be used as this has been found to be successful.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical

manual of mental disorders (5th ed., text rev.). Washington, DC: Author

Bourne, E.J., (2011). The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook New Harbinger Publications. 5th ed pp. 50–51. ISBN 572244135

Davey, G.C. (1999). Phobias: a handbook of theory, research and treatment. John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Fredrikson, M., Annas, P., Fischer, H., & Wik, G. (1996). Gender and age differences in the prevalence of specific fears and phobias. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 34(1), 33-39.

Freud, S. (1909) The analysis of a phobia in a five-year old boy. In Collected Papers, Vol. 3. London: Hogarth, 1950.

McEvoy, P. M., Grove, R., & Slade, T. (2011). Epidemiology of anxiety disorders in the Australian general population: findings of the 2007 Australian National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 45(11), 957-967.

Whalen, P.J, & Phelps, E.A., (2009). The Human Amygdala. New York: The Guilford Press.

Watson, J.B., & Rayner, R. (1920) Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experi-

mental Psychology, 3, 1-14

Wolfe, J., & Lazarus, A,. The practice of behaviour therapy. London: Pergamon, 1969


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