Are Phobias Triggering a Physiological Response?

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Physiological responses are the body's automatic reactions to a stimulus. Most of us are familiar with the automatic and instinctive physiological responses we experience every day, but we typically remain unaware of them. Many of us are also prone to more severe physiological responses to stimuli like stress that tap into what is known as the "fight or flight" response. When placed in a stressful situation, you might begin to sweat and your heart rate may increase, both types of physiological responses.

Physiological Responses to Phobias

Physiological responses happen when we perceive that we're under stress or danger, whether it's real or imagined. The fight or flight response is your body's way of protecting you by producing stress hormones, cortisol, and adrenaline so that you can be ready to either fight or run.

If you have a phobia, coming into contact with the object of your phobia can serve as the stress trigger for different types of physiological responses. Physiological response to an intense and irrational fear can manifest itself in physical ways, including:

  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Faster breathing
  • Heart palpitations
  • Nausea
  • Panic attacks
  • Shaking
  • Sweating

Your physiological responses may be mild or severe, but they are not generally dangerous. However, these physical symptoms can mirror those of some medical conditions, so it's important to check with your doctor if you experience them.

Understanding Phobias

While the physiological responses you experience when you have a phobia are often a unique reaction to a specific fear, it's important to know if this response is, in fact, caused by a true phobia. Mental health professionals cannot use a lab test to diagnose a phobia, so they use the criteria found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, also known as DSM-5.

A phobia involves an intense and irrational fear, but it's important to note that fear and a phobia are not the same.

Diagnosing a Phobia

In order for a phobia to be diagnosed, it must cause significant distress or interfere with your daily life. For example, a strong fear of snakes may not be a phobia for a city-dweller who would rarely come in contact with a snake. However, it may represent a severe phobia in a farmer whose country property is home to numerous snakes.

There are many anxiety and other disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that can cause phobic-like reactions to certain situations. A mental health professional will do a comprehensive evaluation of your history and experiences to arrive at a correct diagnosis.

Treatment

Many phobias continue to worsen over time, so it's a good idea to get treated promptly. The two commonly accepted forms of treatment for phobias are medication and therapy. Many clinicians prefer to try therapy first, adding medications only if needed. Both types can help with the physiological responses caused by phobias.

Therapies

One of the most accepted forms of therapy for phobias is known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).  In CBT, your clinician works with you to confront the feared situation and change your phobic reaction by changing the automatic thoughts that occur. 

Exposure therapy is a technique used in CBT that works well in treating phobias. A popular type is known as systematic desensitization during which you're gradually exposed to the feared object. You learn to tolerate increased exposure bit by bit.

Medications

In addition, prescription medications can help with physiological responses caused by phobias. These include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and beta-blockers, which limit the effects of adrenaline on your body.

Other Treatments

Many people find relief through complementary and alternative treatments and mind-body interventions. However, these methods should only be attempted under the supervision of your mental health professional.

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2 Sources
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  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Panic Disorder: When Fear Overwhelms. Updated 2016.

  2. American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA, American Psychiatric Association, 2013.