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4.3 Specific Phobia

Section Learning Objectives

  • Describe how specific phobia presents itself.
  • Describe the epidemiology of specific phobia.
  • Indicate which disorders are commonly comorbid with specific phobia.
  • Describe the treatment options for specific phobia.

4.3.1 Clinical Description

Specific phobia is distinguished by an individual’s fear or anxiety specific to an object or a situation. While the amount of fear or anxiety related to the specific object or situation varies among individuals, it also varies related to the proximity of the object/situation. When individuals are face-to-face with their specific phobia, immediate fear is present. It should also be noted that these fears are more excessive and more persistent than a “normal” fear, often severely impacting one’s daily functioning (APA, 2013).

Individuals can experience multiple specific phobias at one time. In fact, nearly 75% of individuals with a specific phobia report fear in more than one object (APA, 2013).  When making a diagnosis of specific phobia, it is important to identify the specific phobic stimulus. Among the most commonly diagnosed specific phobias are animals, natural environments (height, storms, water), blood-injection-injury (needles, invasive medical procedures), or situational (airplanes, elevators, enclosed places; APA, 2013). Given the high percentage of individuals who experience more than one specific phobia, all specific phobias should be listed as a diagnosis in efforts to identify an appropriate treatment plan.

4.3.2 Epidemiology

The prevalence rate for specific phobias is 7-9% within the united states. While young children have a prevalence rate of approximately 5%, teens have nearly a double prevalence rate than that of the general public at 16%. There is a 2:1 ratio of females to males diagnosed with specific phobia; however, this rate changes depending on the different phobic stimuli. More specifically, animal, natural environment, and situational specific phobias are more commonly diagnosed in females, whereas blood-injection-injury phobia is reportedly diagnosed equally between genders.

4.3.3. Comorbidity

Seeing as the onset of specific phobias occurs at a younger age than most other anxiety disorders, it is generally the primary diagnosis with generalized anxiety disorder as an occasional comorbid diagnosis. It should be noted that children/teens diagnosed with a specific phobia are at an increased risk for additional psychopathology later in life. More specifically, other anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, substance-related disorders and somatic symptom disorders.

4.3.4 Treatment Exposure Treatments 

While there are many treatment options for specific phobias, research routinely supports the behavioral techniques as the most effective treatment strategies. Seeing as the behavioral theory suggests phobias are developed via classical conditioning, the treatment approach revolves around breaking the maladaptive association developed between the object and fear. This is generally accomplished through exposure treatments. As the name implies, the individual is exposed to their feared stimuli. This can be done using several different approaches: systematic desensitization, flooding, and modeling. 

Systematic desensitization is an exposure technique that utilizes relaxation strategies to help calm the individual as they are presented with the fearful object. The notion behind this technique is that both fear and relaxation cannot exist at the same time; therefore, the individual is taught how to replace their fearful reaction with a calm, relaxing reaction. To begin, the client, with assistance from the clinician, will identify a fear hierarchy, or a list of feared objects/situations ordered from least fearful to most fearful. After learning intensive relaxation techniques, the clinician will present items from the fear hierarchy- starting from the least fearful object/subject- while the patient practices using the learned relaxation techniques. The presentation of the feared object/situation can be in person (in vivo exposure) or it can be imagined (imaginal exposure). Imaginal exposure tends to be less intensive than in vivo exposure; however, it is less effective than in vivo exposure in eliminating the phobia. Depending on the phobia, in vivo exposure may not be an option, such as with a fear of a tornado. Once the patient is able to effectively employ relaxation techniques to reduce their fear/anxiety to a manageable level, the clinician will slowly move up the fear hierarchy until the individual does not experience excessive fear of any objects on the list.

Another exposure technique is flooding. In flooding, the clinician does not utilize a fear hierarchy, but rather repeatedly exposes the individual to their most feared object/subject. Similar to systematic desensitization, flooding can be done in either in vivo or imaginal exposure. Clearly, this technique is more intensive than the systematic or gradual exposure to feared objects. Because of this, patients are at a greater likelihood of dropping out of treatment, thus not successfully overcoming their phobias.

Finally, modeling is a common technique that is used to treat specific phobias (Kelly, Barker, Field, Wilson, & Reynolds, 2010). In this technique, the clinician approaches the feared object/subject while the patient observes. Like the name implies, the clinician models appropriate behaviors when exposed to the feared stimulus, implying that the phobia is irrational. After modeling several times, the clinician encourages the patient to confront the feared stimulus with the clinician, and then ultimately, without the clinician.



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