Specific Phobias are uniquitous, but usually not bothersome, because most people can conveniently avoid encounters with whatever is the feared object or situation. If you fear heights, you don’t become a window washer working on a skyscraper. People with a fear to snakes avoid hiking on mountains trails. In each of these situations, the person has arrived at an equilibrium that is acceptable at least to him. The benefits of the avoidance to outweigh its cost.
Treatment for Specific Phobia is usually sought after a change in life circumstances topples the balance and makes avoidance untenable or intolerable. A person with a height phobia is relocated from a ground floor office in a suburban location to a top floor office in a high rise. A family with a frisky Irish wolfhound move in next door to someone with a dog phobia. A person with a fear of injections is diagnosed as having cancer and forced to undergo chemotherapy. Someone with a snake phobia has to move to Arizona.
The response to a phobic stimulus is both predicable and instantaneous when you are unable to avoid exposure to the feared object or situation intense fear and a desire to escape immediately. You retain a keen awareness that your reaction is way out proportion to any actual danger but this insight does not help a whole lot when you are confronted by your nemesis.
The mechanism underlying Specific Phobia are varied and interesting. For some people, phobias are just an exaggerated version of inborn, ethologically hardwired, adaptive fears. A baby chimpanzee will respond with fear even to a picture of a snake despite having had to previous contact whatsoever with snakes. A baby or a puppy will avoid falling off a height even though they have never had a previous experience of tumbling. Our instinct prepare us to be afraid of those things that were inherently most dangerous to our predecessors in the world of the last million years.
This explains why humans are naturally much more afraid of animals, the dark, being alone, suffocation, drawing, heights, and storm than of the more moder hazards of the fast cars, busy intersections, electric sockets, guns, unsafe sex, and street drugs. It also explains why animals so exquisitely adapted to the dangers of the natural environment are so likely to become roadkill. Our genes have not yet had time to catch up the fast changing danger of the modern world. This type of inborn phobia usually begins in early childhood and continues throughout life. Although it does not have to be learned, the fear can certainly be reinforced by actual negative experiences.
Phobias can also be learned by exposure to the painful consequences of a dangerous object or situations. What probably starts out as an adaptive avoidance meant to prevent subsequent brushes with similar danger in then taken to an extreme and indiscriminate generalization. Being in car accident may lead to complete reliance on public transportation, a minor dog nip from a German shepherd pup triggers a fear of all dogs etc.
Some phobias develop through the more vicarious method of learning by example. This is most often seen in the children of parents who were themselves afflicted with severe phobias.
According to the diagnostic manual, you have specific phobia if: