People experiencing phobias or panic attacks find that their anxiety has a debilitating effect on their everyday functioning. Anxiety related disorders manifest in a variety of different ways from generalised anxiety disorders, through to specific phobias and panic disorder. The common denominator however, is anxiety.

Understanding Phobias

A phobia is an intense feeling of fear and anxiety towards a situation, place or object that is inappropriate or irrational. It is important to remember that we all have fears, some of us are afraid of spiders, while others are afraid of heights. While it is normal to have anxiety or fear of a specific situation or object, phobias differ in that the fear is so intense that the person will do just about anything to avoid it. Furthermore, the intensity of the fear experienced is often inappropriate to the level of threat involved. For example, many of us are anxious about flying, but are still able to get onto an airplane and fly to our destination without much fuss. Someone with a phobia of flying will find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to even set foot on the airplane let alone fly anywhere in it. Phobias often have a negative impact on personal relationships, work and general function.

Some examples of phobias include:

  • Agoraphobia: A fear of open spaces. Someone with this phobia will prefer to stay indoors and find it extremely anxiety provoking, if not impossible, to be outside.
  • Social phobia: A fear of social situations. Someone with social phobia finds that being in a crowd of people (however small) is very anxiety provoking and, as a result, avoids all social situations.
  • Specific phobias: of situations, places, animals or objects. This can include an intense fear of spiders, clowns, circus’s, shoes, heights, flying and many more. In fact there is no real limit to what specific phobias one may experience.

Understanding Panic disorder

Panic disorder refers to repeated experiences of panic attacks. Panic attacks are defined as a short, intense experience of anxiety that includes a range of physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, dizziness, limbs feeling numb, heart palpitations and nausea. The physical symptoms often resemble a heart attack and the sufferer often feels like he is going to die. Panic attacks resolve on their own within a few minutes but the sufferer may continue to fear and anticipate another attack. Fearing that another attack may happen at any time may result in the sufferer avoiding going out or being alone. This can have a negative impact on personal relationships, work and general functioning.

The difficult thing about panic attacks is that they seem to come out of nowhere and without any specific triggers. However, most panic attack sufferers are also struggling with anxiety in general and the panic attack is almost like a release of nervous energy.

When should I seek help?

While many of experience anxiety in our day to day lives, anxiety that becomes irrational and uncontrollable can have a negative impact on your functioning and your relationships. It is important to acknowledge when you are no longer able to manage your own anxiety, or when it feels that the level of anxiety or fear you are experiencing is inappropriate and irrational.
Counselling and support not only helps you to cope with the experience of a panic attack or phobia, but will also teach you effective ways of managing the fear. Panic attacks are often created simply by virtue of anticipating one and misreading physical symptoms. In other words, increased heart rate may be misinterpreted as the onset of a panic attack and then the anxiety of having an attack actually brings on an attack. Learning how to read the signals and to use relaxation techniques will also assist in managing the panic attacks. Similarly, counselling or therapy will assist with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and desensitisation to overcome any irrational fears and phobias that may stand as obstacles to a higher quality of life. Seeking help will assist in overcoming this anxiety and improving your quality of life.

How can I help someone close to me?

Assisting someone close to you can be a challenge – especially if you don’t share the same level of anxiety about the situation, place or object. Understanding panic attacks is also very difficult, especially when there seems to be no reason for it. The biggest support is patience and empathy. People who are struggling with mental illness, particularly something debilitating like a phobia or panic disorder often feel ashamed of themselves and believe there is something inherently wrong with them.

Supporting a loved one is about remembering that they are struggling with an illness and that this is not a personality characteristic. Help your loved one by frequently pointing this out to them so that they, too, can realise that this is not a flaw in their personality.

As hard as it may feel sometimes, try to empathise with your loved one by trying to remember the last time you felt intense fear. While you may not be able to understand their reaction to this specific object or situation, try understand the level of anxiety they are experiencing (whether rational or not). Be patient. Your loved one will get better, but it will take time and patience from you both.
Seek family or relationship counselling if you feel that the problem is beginning to cause difficulties in your relationship or family life. Support groups are available and you are encouraged to join one if you are feeling daunted by the challenge.

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