What are the symptoms of phobia? How can we decide whether we are experiencing a phobia or a normal level of fear? On an earlier page, in which I define phobia, I explain that it is normal for all of us to experience fear. It is normal to be frightened by frightening things or frightening events.
For example, it might be normal to experience fear if you came face to face with a lion while on safari in Africa, but it is not normal to live perpetually in fear of coming face to face with a lion if you live in Europe of the USA, nor is it normal, if you live in Europe or the USA, to arrange your life to ensure that you don’t come face to face with a lion, or to experience panic attacks at the thought that you might come face to face with a lion! Such thoughts and behaviours are extreme, abnormal, and irrational.
So what are the clinical, experiential differences between normal fear and phobia?
In simple terms, fear is usually described as an intense negative emotion or distressing sensation, but the symptoms of phobia are much greater than that. Phobia sufferers have psychological and somatic (physical, bodily) symptoms, and usually, undertake avoidance behaviours.
. Here are some of the psychological feelings that phobia sufferers experience when faced with their trigger: feelings of detachment or unreality (of not being really present in the moment – a form of defence mechanism); anxiety; persistent fear of the specific trigger, even in its absence; excessive fear that cannot be reduced by conscious thought or rationalisation; panic; a strong desire to get away from the phobic stimulus, or avoid the trigger altogether; fear of losing control.
• Somatic (physical) symptoms
Here are some of the physical feelings that phobia sufferers experience when faced with their trigger: sweating; trembling; feelings of faintness; dizziness; nausea; palpitations; rapid heartbeat; hyperventilation (rapid, shallow breathing); breathlessness; a feeling of being smothered; tightness in the chest; tremors; shivering; abdominal pain; diarrhoea; tingling in the hands or feet; dry mouth; increased swallowing; coughing; pallor; muscle weakness.
People who experience phobias will often undertake behaviours designed to avoid the phobic trigger – not just avoid the trigger itself, but avoid anything that might remind them of the trigger. This can have a very disruptive effect on a sufferer’s life. [The former Arsenal football player, Dennis Bergkamp was well known for his fear of flying – caused by an incident on board a plane whilst on international duty with the Dutch team. His aerophobia made life somewhat awkward for this international sportsman – he regularly travelled overland by car or train to play in matches overseas, or sometimes would miss matches altogether because it was logistically impossible for him to get to the destination by any method other than air.]
I must stress that you don’t need to experience all of the above symptoms of phobia to come to the conclusion that you have a phobia! If you experience just a few of the above symptoms (especially if you experience them at the mere thought of the trigger) then you could reasonably say that you have a phobia.
Stages of phobia development
The final part of this page is to explain that there are three stages in the development of phobias – in the development of symptoms of phobia, through which the symptoms become progressively more severe, and progressively more remote from the original trigger or traumatising event:
• In the first stage
the phobias only appear in the presence of the trigger (the traumatising stimulus). For example, someone speaking in public may experience some of the symptoms of phobia at the time of speaking (anxiety; sweating; tremors). A further example might be that of someone who suffers from gephyrophobia – the fear of bridges or of crossing bridges. Such a person might first experience fear only while actually on a bridge.
In the second stage
, the symptoms of phobia appear not only in the pathogenic circumstances but prior to it, merely from the expectation of it – the subject starts to experience fear before the event. So, in our public speaking example, the subject may experience the same symptoms of phobia merely from anticipating a forthcoming speaking event. The gephyrophobia might start to experience fear before approaching a bridge, or before setting off on a journey that is known to involve crossing bridges.
• In the third stage
the symptoms of phobia appear in otherwise neutral situations. For example, our public speaker may start to experience symptoms merely at the sight of a lectern, or a diary, or when watching another speaker on TV. The bridge feared may start to experience phobic symptoms even when seeing a photograph of a bridge. Both subjects will start avoidance behaviours – avoiding places that may contain any of the paraphernalia of public speaking or arranging journeys that may involve long detours merely to avoid bridges.
The symptoms of phobia can be very distressing to the sufferer. They are always more extreme than simple rational fear, and they should not be ignored because there are techniques for controlling or eliminating phobias.