Phobias are characterized by the great variety of forms they take. If there is an element of reality or even a phenomenon imaginable by human beings, probably at some point someone will have developed a phobia to it.
For example, there is the phobia of cats and spiders, forms of fear that, although irrational in the vast majority of cases, make some sense; but there is also the phobia of clowns, the phobia of holes, or the phobia of birds, which is more difficult to understand without feeling them in one’s own flesh.
However, beyond all this variety of forms, there is a type of phobia that seems to be the purest of all, the most basic. It is the phobia, or the phobia of fear itself . In this article we will see what it is like, what symptoms characterize this psychological disorder, and how it is treated in psychotherapy.
What is photophobia?
As we have discussed in the previous paragraphs, the simplest way to understand phobia is to consider it the phobia of fear, or the phobia of phobic crisis. In other words, it is a snake that bites its own tail, a vicious circle that feeds back at the expense of the anxiety that the person suffering it keeps latent due to several circumstances (this last one we will see later on).
Those who suffer from phobia can live normally for most of the time, but occasionally they will notice several things happening: they will avoid places and contexts where they think they might have fear attacks, and on the other hand they will suffer from extreme fear attacks… or rather, anxiety attacks.
What kind of situations will trigger phobic crises? Potentially, any. This is because in this case the root of the fear is fear itself, a phenomenon that does not emanate from the environment: fear does not “spring up” from a dog that barks in a threatening way, nor at the top of a steeply sloping mountain.
In any case, fear, which triggers the peaks of anxiety, is something contextual, a process that occurs in the interaction between the individual and a situation that will be interpreted and valued in a subjective way by the first. Because of this, what can be scary is both everything and nothing.
Because of this, phobia is one of the most unpredictable types of phobia , given that it is not tied to any particular type of stimulus that is easy to objectify, but arises from something as subjective as the idea that everyone has about what is scary depending on the occasion.
What are the symptoms of photophobia? Quickly put, they are typical of virtually any phobia because the main differences between them are the type of situation or stimulus that triggers them. For example, mouse phobia and driving phobia usually manifest themselves in very similar ways.
Among the characteristic symptoms of phobias are dizziness, nausea, trembling, cold sweat, increased heart rate , catastrophic thoughts about what will happen in the next few seconds or minutes, and an intense urge to run away from the place one is in, or to hide.
As for the causes of phobia, these are partly unknown, although it is known that there are many, and each probably contributes little to the development of this type of anxiety disorder.
It is assumed that genetic predispositions explain part of why some people end up developing phobia, and also that certain unpleasant experiences are capable of leaving a kind of imprint on our emotional memory, making the fear of fear progressively generate a snowball down the hill, bigger and bigger as new unpleasant experiences are added to this set of anxious memories.
How is phobia treated in mental health centres? Psychotherapy has proven to be very effective in dealing with this kind of anxiety disorder. What we psychotherapists do is create situations in which the patient learns to weaken the link that keeps two memories linked to each other in the emotional memory: the memory of how one reacts to the possibility of being afraid, and the memory of how badly one goes through when having big fear or anxiety crises.
In this way, the unconscious part of the mind of phobophobic patients no longer establishes an equivalence between “having the expectation of being afraid” and “suffering an intense anxiety crisis”.
In the Psychology Centre Psicomaster, located in Madrid, we have a team of psychologists with extensive experience in the treatment of anxiety disorders such as phobias, and the principles to be applied are always to enhance the autonomy of patients, so that, little by little, they are able to see for themselves that when exposed to what they are so afraid of, nothing happens.
Thus through experience in therapy, changes are achieved for the better both in their way of behaving (not avoiding objectively harmless situations) and in their way of interpreting reality.
- American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
- Griez, E.J. & Van den Hout, M.A. (1983). Treatment of Phobophobia by Exposure to CO2-Induced Anxiety Symptoms. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 171: 506 – 508.
- Mark, WI. (1978). Living with fear: understanding and coping with anxiety. USA: McGraw Hill.