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Specific Phobia

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Last Update: April 11, 2019.

Introduction

Patients with a specific phobia experience high levels of anxiety and panic attacks along with excessive and unreasonable fear due to either exposure or anticipation of exposure to a feared stimulus. As a result, these patients will try to avoid the anxiety-provoking stimulus to any extent possible. Many patients have a strong family history of specific phobia. However, more studies need to be conducted to rule out nongenetic transmission of specific phobias. [1][2][3]There is a high familial tendency in the blood injection injury type of phobia. Specific phobias can be categorized into the following subcategories: 

  • Animals (spiders, insects, dogs)
  • Natural environment type (heights, storms, water)
  • Blood injection injury type (needles, invasive medical procedures)
  • Situational type (airplanes, elevators, enclosed spaces)
  • Other types of phobias that do not fit into the previous 4 categories

Etiology

The exact etiology of specific phobias is not known. However, some theories suggest that specific phobia may also develop due to an association of a specific object or situation with emotions such as fear and panic. Two theories have been proposed to show this pairing. The most common theory is when a specific event that provokes fear or anxiety is paired with an emotional experience. An example of this would be in which a specific event such as driving is paired with an emotional experience such as an accident. As a result, a person is susceptible to a permanent emotional association between driving or cars and fear or anxiety. Although a person may not experience a panic attack or meet the criteria for a panic disorder, they may develop a generalized fear that is expressed as having a specific phobia. Another mechanism of association is through modeling, in which a person observes a reaction in another person and internalizes that other person’s fears or warnings about the dangers of a specific object or situation.[4][5][6][7]

Epidemiology

Specific phobia affects about 5% to 10% of the US population. A bimodal distribution of onset can be seen with specific phobias. Animal phobia, natural environment phobia, and blood injection injury type of phobia tend to have a childhood peak, whereas, there is an early adulthood peak for situational phobia.

History and Physical

There is marked fear or anxiety regarding a specific object or situation, often the following:

  • The specific object or situation almost always provokes immediate fear or anxiety
  • Children may express the fear or anxiety by crying, tantrums, freezing, or by clinging
  • The phobic object or situation is actively and persistently avoided for 6 months or more
  • The fear or anxiety experienced is out of proportion to the actual danger posed by the specific object or situation
  • Notable, clinical distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning is evident
  • The symptoms cannot be explained by another psychiatric disorder such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), separation anxiety disorder, or social anxiety disorder

Evaluation

Evaluation is usually limited to a detailed history and physical.

Treatment / Management

Behavior therapy is the most effective treatment for phobias is behavioral therapy. This includes systematic desensitization and flooding. In methodical desensitization, the patient is exposed to a list of stimuli ranking from the least to the most anxiety provoking. With this method, patients are taught various techniques to deal with anxiety such as relaxation, breathing control, and cognitive approaches. The cognitive behavioral approach includes reinforcing the realization that the phobic stimulus is safe. As the patient masters these techniques, they are taught to use them in the face of anxiety-provoking stimuli and induce relaxation. As the patients become desensitized to each stimulus on the scale, they keep moving up until the most anxiety-provoking stimuli no longer elicit any fear or anxiety.[8][9][10][11]

Patients with a blood injection injury phobia are advised to tense their bodies and remain seated during the exposure to avoid the possibility of fainting from a vasovagal reaction. Also, beta blockers and benzodiazepines can be used in patients when the phobia is associated with panic attacks. Flooding, also known as implosion, is another behavioral technique that can be used to treat specific phobias. This technique involves increasing exposure to the stimulus to induce habituation and decrease anxiety.

To be successful, behavioral therapy requires that patient be committed to the treatment, there are distinctly identified problems and objectives, and there are alternative strategies for dealing with the patient’s feelings.

Other forms of treatment that may also be considered are virtual therapy in which patient is exposed to or interact with the phobic object or situation on the computer screen. This field of treatment is relatively new and requires more research. Other treatment modalities include hypnosis, supportive therapy, and family therapy. The goal of all 3 forms of therapy is to help the patient recognize that the feared stimulus is not dangerous and to provide emotional support.

Differential Diagnosis

  •  Medical conditions that can result in the development of a phobia include substance use particularly hallucinogens and sympathomimetics, central nervous system (CNS) tumors, and cerebrovascular diseases. However, in these conditions, phobic symptoms are unlikely in the absence of additional findings on physical, neurological, and mental status examinations.
  • Schizophrenic patients may also present with phobic symptoms. However,  patients with phobia have intact insight to their irrational fears and lack psychotic symptoms associated with schizophrenia.
  • It is also important to rule out panic disorder, agoraphobia, and avoidant personality disorder. It can be difficult to distinguish specific phobia from panic disorder, agoraphobia, and avoidant personality disorder. However, in specific phobia, these patients tend to experience anxiety or fear immediately upon exposure of the phobic stimulus. In addition, patients with specific phobia do not exhibit signs of fear or anxiety when they are not facing or anticipating the phobic stimulus.
  • It is important to rule out other conditions such as hypochondriasis, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and paranoid personality disorder. There is a subtle difference between hypochondriasis and specific phobia. For example, patients with hypochondriasis fear having the disease and patients with specific phobia fear to contract the disease. Same holds true for the difference between obsessive-compulsive disorder and specific phobia. For example, patients with OCD may avoid knives because they have compulsive thoughts of harming their children; whereas, patients with a specific phobia may avoid knives because they fear cutting themselves. Patients with paranoid personality disorder have generalized fear, which is not found in patients with specific phobia.

Prognosis

With the appropriate behavioral techniques and medications, the prognosis is well.

Deterrence and Patient Education

Patients are advised to see a psychiatrist when symptoms are affecting their daily activities and quality of life.

Pearls and Other Issues

The most common signs/symptoms that can be seen in specific phobia are:

  • Feeling nauseous, dizzy, or fainting
  • Difficulty breathing, chest tightness, or fast heartbeat
  • The fear or anxiety out of proportion to the real danger posed by the specific object or situation

Common modalities of treatment include:

  • Systematic desensitization
  • Flooding
  • Medications such as beta-blockers and benzodiazepines

The fear, anxiety, or avoidance is persistent, typically lasting for 6 months or more.

The fear, anxiety, or avoidance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other relevant areas of functioning.

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

The management of phobias is usually with a multidisciplinary team that includes a mental health nurse, psychiastrist, psychotherapist and the primary care provider. In most cases, behavior therapy is first line treatment and does work. However, the period of desensitization can take weeks or even months.

To be successful, behavioral therapy requires that patient be committed to the treatment, there are distinctly identified problems and objectives, and there are alternative strategies for dealing with the patient’s feelings.

Other forms of treatment that may also be considered are virtual therapy in which patient is exposed to or interact with the phobic object or situation on the computer screen. This field of treatment is relatively new and requires more research. Other treatment modalities include hypnosis, supportive therapy, and family therapy. The goal of all 3 forms of therapy is to help the patient recognize that the feared stimulus is not dangerous and to provide emotional support.

Overall, the prognosis for most patients is fair because relapses are common. [12][13] (level V)

Questions

To access free multiple choice questions on this topic, click here.

References

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Rubo M, Huestegge L, Gamer M. Social anxiety modulates visual exploration in real life - but not in the laboratory. Br J Psychol. 2019 Apr 03; [PubMed: 30945279]
2.
Fragiotta G, Pierelli F, Coppola G, Conte C, Perrotta A, Serrao M. Effect of phobic visual stimulation on spinal nociception. Physiol. Behav. 2019 Jul 01;206:22-27. [PubMed: 30902634]
3.
Health Quality Ontario. Internet-Delivered Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Major Depression and Anxiety Disorders: A Health Technology Assessment. Ont Health Technol Assess Ser. 2019;19(6):1-199. [PMC free article: PMC6394534] [PubMed: 30873251]
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Campos D, Bretón-López J, Botella C, Mira A, Castilla D, Mor S, Baños R, Quero S. Efficacy of an internet-based exposure treatment for flying phobia (NO-FEAR Airlines) with and without therapist guidance: a randomized controlled trial. BMC Psychiatry. 2019 Mar 06;19(1):86. [PMC free article: PMC6404352] [PubMed: 30841930]
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Pary R, Sarai SK, Micchelli A, Lippmann S. Anxiety Disorders in Older Patients. Prim Care Companion CNS Disord. 2019 Jan 31;21(1) [PubMed: 30806999]
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Kawsar MDS, Marwaha R. StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing; Treasure Island (FL): Jan 17, 2019. School Refusal. [PubMed: 30480934]
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Oing T, Prescott J. Implementations of Virtual Reality for Anxiety-Related Disorders: Systematic Review. JMIR Serious Games. 2018 Nov 07;6(4):e10965. [PMC free article: PMC6249506] [PubMed: 30404770]
8.
Spurling KJ, McGoldrick VP. Blood-Injection-Injury (B-I-I) Specific Phobia Affects the Outcome of Hypoxic Challenge Testing. Aerosp Med Hum Perform. 2017 May 01;88(5):503-506. [PubMed: 28417842]
9.
Kogan CS, Stein DJ, Maj M, First MB, Emmelkamp PM, Reed GM. The Classification of Anxiety and Fear-Related Disorders in the ICD-11. Depress Anxiety. 2016 Dec;33(12):1141-1154. [PubMed: 27411108]
10.
Zwanzger P. [Pharmacotherapy of Anxiety Disorders]. Fortschr Neurol Psychiatr. 2016 May;84(5):306-14. [PubMed: 27299791]
11.
Ori R, Amos T, Bergman H, Soares-Weiser K, Ipser JC, Stein DJ. Augmentation of cognitive and behavioural therapies (CBT) with d-cycloserine for anxiety and related disorders. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015 May 10;(5):CD007803. [PubMed: 25957940]
12.
Tomei C, Lebel S, Maheu C, Lefebvre M, Harris C. Examining the preliminary efficacy of an intervention for fear of cancer recurrence in female cancer survivors: a randomized controlled clinical trial pilot study. Support Care Cancer. 2018 Aug;26(8):2751-2762. [PubMed: 29500582]
13.
van de Wal M, Langenberg S, Gielissen M, Thewes B, van Oort I, Prins J. Fear of cancer recurrence: a significant concern among partners of prostate cancer survivors. Psychooncology. 2017 Dec;26(12):2079-2085. [PubMed: 28317267]
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Bookshelf ID: NBK499923PMID: 29763098

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