“Phobias have often been a subject of ridicule. But ‘funny’ is one thing they are not.”—Jerilyn Ross, director of a treatment center for anxiety disordersTHE word “phobia” refers to an intense, unrealistic fear of an object, an event, or a feeling. But a definition alone cannot convey the terror and loneliness that mark this condition. Raeann Dumont, who has treated phobias for more than two decades, notes: “Phobic people may avoid so many situations that they become housebound, or they may live with constant, unrelenting anxiety, or they may relieve their anxiety with alcohol, which may cause additional problems.”
Phobias are classified among a group of ailments called anxiety disorders. It is estimated that 12 percent of the adult population in the United States will deal with a phobia at some point in their life. Many of these will suffer in silence for years. “Unfortunately,” reports the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, “about three-quarters of individuals with phobias never get help. Many people with phobias are reluctant to seek assistance because of embarrassment. Others don’t understand what they have or where to find help, and some fear the treatment itself.”
There are hundreds of known phobias, but experts usually arrange them in three categories. Simple phobias focus on an object or a situation, such as insects, animals, flying, and being in closed spaces. Agoraphobia usually occurs in conjunction with panic attacks. The sufferer fears having a panic attack to the extent that he or she avoids all places and situations where previous attacks occurred. Social phobias are characterized by a fear of being embarrassed in public settings, such as speaking before an audience.
Consider just one of these three—social phobias. The Washingtonian states: “Lump together all the simple phobias, such as fear of snakes or flying, and they don’t even touch social phobia as a cause of misery.”