Phobias, manifested by overwhelming and irrational fears, are common. In most cases, people can avoid or at least endure phobic situations, but in some cases, as with agoraphobia, the anxiety associated with the feared object or situation can be incapacitating.
Agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is described as fear of being in public places or open areas. (The term comes from the Greek word agora, meaning outdoor marketplace.) In its severest form, agoraphobia is characterized by a paralyzing terror of being in places or situations from which the patient feels there is neither escape nor accessible help in case of an attack. Consequently, people with agoraphobia confine themselves to places in which they feel safe, usually at home. The patient with agoraphobia often makes complicated plans in order to avoid confronting feared situations and places.
Social Phobia. Social phobia, also known as social anxiety disorder, is the fear of being publicly scrutinized and humiliated and is manifested by extreme shyness and discomfort in social settings. This phobia often leads people to avoid social situations and is not due to a physical or mental problem (such as stuttering, acne, or personality disorders).
The associated symptoms vary in intensity, ranging from mild and tolerable anxiety to a full-blown panic attack. (Unlike a panic attack, however, social phobia is always directly related to a social situation.) Symptoms include sweating, shortness of breath, pounding heart, dry mouth, and tremor.
- Generalized social phobia is the fear of being humiliated in front of other people during nearly all social situations. People with this subtype are the most socially impaired and also the most likely to seek treatment.
- Specific social phobia usually involves a phobic response to a specific event. Performance anxiety ("stage fright") is the most common specific social phobia and occurs when a person must perform in public. These patients usually feel comfortable in informal social situations.
Children with social anxiety develop symptoms in settings that include their peers, not just adults, and these symptoms may include tantrums, blushing, or not being able to speak to unfamiliar people. These children are often able to have normal social relationships with familiar people, however.
Specific Phobias. Specific phobias (formerly simple phobias) are an irrational fear of specific objects or situations. Specific phobias are very common. Most cases are mild and not significant enough to require treatment.
The most common specific phobias are fear of animals (usually spiders, snakes, or mice), flying (pterygophobia), heights (acrophobia), water, injections, public transportation, confined spaces (claustrophobia), dentists (odontiatophobia), storms, tunnels, and bridges.
When confronting the object or situation, the phobic person experiences panicky feelings, sweating, avoidance behavior, difficulty breathing, and a rapid heartbeat. Most phobic adults are aware of the irrationality of their fear, and many endure intense anxiety rather than disclose their disorder.
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