People need not lead phobia-ridden lives. They can overcome their fears with the help of therapy and medication
As a student, this was the image friends had of Anitha — a cool person with a ‘don’t care’ attitude. Anitha herself thought she was that kind of person. But she also had contradictory feelings. Though not many realised it, she didn’t dare enter a room full of people, and got so anxious she found it difficult to breathe. This made her opt out of many activities and social interactions. Later, she even quit her job, because she couldn’t stand being in a room full of people.
Well, Anitha was suffering from social phobia, a mental illness not many are aware of. Yoga, especially breathing exercises, meditation and awareness of her problem helped Anitha overcome it, but there are more serious instances of phobia which can cripple lives.
Common mental illness
Scores of unluckier people live phobia-ridden lives, without taking treatment. Studies are yet to be conducted in India, but in the U.S., more than 12 per cent of the population experiences a phobia at some point in their lives. Phobias happen to be the most common of mental illnesses; the degree of their intensity varies.
A phobia often gets dismissed as just shyness or cowardice. But it is not just aversion, or fear. People gripped by a phobia become involuntarily anxious when exposed to the object that they fear. “They take extraordinary measures to avoid it. If faced with the object of fear, they may become unable to perform even normal tasks and get panicky, break into a sweat, experience rapid heartbeats and even difficulty in breathing,” says Dr. Latha Satish, psychologist and research scientist, Department of Psychology, University of Madras.
Phobias may sound incredible to others, but to those who suffer them, life is filled with dread. The consequences of a phobia can be far-reaching; people with phobias avoid objects and situations they fear (though they may disguise their fears citing plausible reasons).
They may end up losing opportunities, like Rakesh, who refused a lucrative job in the U.S., simply because he had a fear of flying! Common phobias include social phobia, claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces), acrophobia (fear of heights), and hydrophobia (fear of water). Often a small, gnawing fear eventually grows into a phobia. Which makes us ask whether we can detect phobias and nip them in the bud? The answer is, yes, but even then, the person would need specific supportive therapy to treat the causes and symptoms, besides continued affirmations such as “I can deal with it”, or “Nothing will happen to me”.
Phobias often respond to treatment that includes cognitive behaviour psychotherapy and specific pharmacotherapy.
“Instead of self help, seeking the help of mental health professionals is recommended, for early diagnosis, intervention and relapse-prevention strategies,” advises Dr. Sangeetha Madhu, consultant clinical psychologist.
“If you notice avoidance reactions, excessive anxiety, distress associated with anxiety, secondary depression and disruption of daily activities and interference with work/school performance, you need to seek medical help,” she recommends.
“The idea is to systematically desensitise the person about the object or situation he fears,” says Dr. C.N. Ramgopal, consultant clinical psychologist and trainer.
We also need to analyse the person’s past and determine the reasons which could have contributed to a phobia, he adds.
Many children suffer phobias. Children fear many things such as darkness, animals and teachers.
While they outgrow some phobias, other phobias get deeper and stronger, if they are not addressed. Psychologists advise parents to talk to their child about his/her specific fear.
And while doing so, they should not trivialise the fear, but give solid reasons why the specific object or situation is not to be feared. And help the child gradually overcome it.
Phobias are a common mental illness, but often go unrecognised.
In the case of excessive avoidance reaction, excessive anxiety, distress associated with anxiety, secondary depression and disruption of daily activities and interference with work/school performance, you need to seek medical intervention.
Phobias can be overcome with cognitive behaviour therapy and medication.
Meditation, breathing exercises and positive affirmations can also help a person fight a phobia.
Address phobias in children without trivialising their fears.HEMA VIJAY