When a fear becomes a phobia

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By Amanda Cupido

Everyone has that Achilles heel. It’s that one thing you are utterly afraid of. Whether it’s the thought of a spider crawling on your neck or being alone in the dark, that one weakness is something that’s inevitable.

But when does fear translate into something more?

According to Donna Ferguson, clinical psychologist at DF Psychological services, having fears are normal while phobias are on a different level. “Phobias are fears that develop into something abnormal,” she said.

The most common phobias include being afraid of insects, animals, injections and blood. Although a lot of people are afraid of things such as insects, determining whether it’s a fear or phobia isn’t tough. “For the most part, people realize when it’s not just a normal fear,” said Ferguson.

Phobias can be caused by family history, genetics, a traumatic incident or a combination of multiple issues. Ferguson helps target the source and come up with a treatment.

“The most common treatment is to gradually desensitize people by exposing them to what they are afraid of.”

She used the example of someone who has a phobia of spiders. First, she would show the patient a picture of a spider. Then she’d progress to doing treatments with plastic spiders. The final step would be using a real spider.

“You can take the exposure technique to treat most phobias,” Ferguson said. She also said there are medications for people who want more than just the exposure treatments.

At Ryerson, the psychology department has a few professors who deal specifically with phobias. Tisha Ornstein, an assistant psychology professor and clinical nurse, deals with people who have car anxieties which stem from a jarring experience.

“Because of that traumatic event, they can become scared of anything that relates,” she said. It can range from driving a vehicle to simply crossing the street.

“It causes anxieties and can lead to heart palpitation or sweating,” said Ornstein.

She also said that phobias can develop over time or right away, also referred to as acutely. Posttraumatic car phobias usually develop acutely and can persist.

For more information, Ornstein recommends taking a look at the Diagnostic Statistics Manual.

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