"There are as many different kinds of phobias as there are different kinds of people," says phobia expert and psychologist Jerilyn Ross.
In the classic sense, a phobia is "an irrational, involuntary, inappropriate fear reaction that generally leads to an avoidance of common everyday places, objects, or situations," says Ross.
In the real sense, though, a phobia is the fear of fear itself. "A phobia is a fear of one's own impulses," says Ross. "It's a fear of having a panic attack, feeling trapped, and losing control."
Phobias are classified into three types: simple or specific phobias, social phobias, and agoraphobia. People with specific phobias experience a dread of certain objects, places, or situations. People with social phobias avoid public situations, like parties, because they're afraid they'll do something to embarrass themselves. Agoraphobics are victims of a complex phenomenon based on a fear of being in public places without a familiar person or an escape plan.
The onset of a phobia is generally unprovoked and rapid. "Usually, people who develop phobias do so in areas in which they had no previous fear," says Ross.
Increasing evidence suggests that phobias are caused by a combination of psychological and biological factors. First, they tend to run in families, suggesting some genetic basis. So if one of your parents had a phobia, you may be predisposed to one, but not necessarily the same one. More often than not, phobias strike people who have a history of separation anxiety and perfectionism.
People with phobias always recognize that their fear is inappropriate to the situation, says Ross. For example, if you're flying on an airplane during a thunderstorm, feeling fearful is a normal reaction. If, however, your boss tells you you'll have to take a business trip in a few weeks and you immediately start worrying about having a panic attack on the plane, that's inappropriate to the situation.
Sound like something you've experienced? If so, here's some rational advice for irrational behavior from those who deal with the problem every day.
If your phobia interferes with your life, seek professional help. Who you seek out is as crucial as seeking help itself. "It's important that you get help from someone who understands phobias," says phobia expert and psychologist Jerilyn Ross. "Many phobics end up going from doctor to doctor and hospital to hospital, so find a professional who specializes in phobias and anxiety-related disorders."
David H. Barlow, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and psychiatry and director emeritus of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University.
Harold Levinson, M.D., is a psychiatrist and neurologist in Great Neck, New York. He discovered that an inner ear dysfunction was responsible for dyslexia and related learning, concentration, and phobic or anxiety disorders. He is the author of Phobia Free, Smart But Feeling Dumb and Total Concentration: How to Understand Attention Deficit Disorders.
Christopher McCullough, Ph.D., has a practice in San Francisco. He is the founder and former director of the San Francisco Anxiety and Phobia Recovery Center. He is co-author of Managing Your Anxiety and author of Always at Ease and Nobody's Victim.
Jerilyn Ross, M.A., L.I.C.S.W., is president and chief executive officer of the Anxiety Disorder Association of America, director of the Ross Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders in Washington, D.C., and author of Triumph Over Fear: A Book Of Help and Hope for People with Anxiety, Panic Attacks and Phobias.
Manuel D. Zane, M.D., is founder and former director of the Phobia Clinic at White Plains Hospital Medical Center in New York.