When does a fear become a debilitating phobia?

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Phobias are much more than a fear or a dislike – they can be debilitating. Experts say about eight per cent of Australians suffer from a phobia of specific things like spiders, injections and vomit. So when does a fear become a full-blown phobia? And what’s the best way to treat them?

Kristina Duke can’t bear the thought of birds. Just being near them causes her to burst into tears, hyperventilate and have panic attacks.

"If I was very close to it [a bird]… I'd probably drop to the ground in a foetal position and start crying like a baby,” Kristina tells SBS Insight.  

When she was eight years old, Kristina’s brother put bird seeds in her hair while they were at an aviary. The birds flocked towards her and fluttered around her face. She says that event changed everything and started her phobia of birds.

"I've never really been the same since."

For Christine Shipp, her fear of spiders is so overwhelming she can’t say or write the word "spider", let alone be in the same room as one. She once jumped out of a moving car that she was driving because she saw a spider.

"I'll kill myself and I don't know how many people I'll take out on the road when I lose control of the vehicle," she says.

Watch: Insight guests describe their phobias


Phobias can range from the logical (arachnophobia or the fear of spiders) to the seemingly bizarre (pteronophobia or the fear of being tickled by feathers). And while some may scoff at conditions like pentheraphobia, the fear of mother-in-laws, or pogonophobia, the fear of beards, phobias are no laughing matter.

Experts tell Insight that about eight per cent of Australians suffer from a phobia of specific things like spiders, injections and vomit. The first symptoms of a phobia usually emerge in childhood or early adolescence.

There are also more women than men who report having phobias, but this might be because men tend to self-medicate or avoid talking about their phobias.

Other people have social phobias, meaning they have acute anxiety about being criticised, embarrassed or humiliated, even in the most ordinary situations.

"Most us have fears, they're evolutionary significant, they help us to survive as a species," Insight guest and clinical psychologist Dr Rocco Crino says.

"But with a phobia, I think that the fear is such that it stops the individual functioning."

Many will experience shaking, sweating, irrational thinking, nausea, difficulty breathing, and an overwhelming desire to escape the situation that is causing the phobic reaction. Extreme measures are sometimes taken to avoid or escape the situation.

"It's overwhelming, it is the fight or flight response. So people freeze or they try and get out of that situation. The fear is absolutely overwhelming."

So when does an ordinary fear become a full-blown phobia? And what’s the best way to treat them? This week’s Insight brings together people with different phobias and hears from experts about the different treatments including exposure therapy, hypnotherapy and even a new pill.

Catch the program tonight at 8.30PM on SBS ONE or live stream http://www.sbs.com.au/insight/live 

Do you have a phobia? How does it affect your life? Tell us about it in the comments below.

 

Watch: Matt and his fear of spiders

Matt Tichelaar has had a fear of spiders all his life but only in the last year has it developed into a phobia. He gets nightmares if he sees them he gets sweaty and begins to tear up - even plastic spiders or photos of spiders can make him anxious. 

 



Source SBS, Insight

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