Fear is a normal defense reaction to people or events that threaten our lives. Phobias, however, are inordinate fears, which vary in degree from a mild situational discomfort to an overwhelming fear that can disrupt a person’s life. Phobias are divided into three major classes:
- Agoraphobia – excessive fear of being in places or situations from which escape might be difficult or at least embarrassing, or fear of situations in which help might not be available should the person become incapacitated.
- Social phobia – excessive fear of being observed by others, fear of being unable to talk without faltering, fear that something embarrassing might happen, or hands shaking while trying to eat or write. This fear centers around social situations where the person is observable. He is afraid that he will embarrass himself in some way.
- Simple phobia – excessive fear of a particular object or situation such as fear of an animal, heights, closed spaces, blood or physical injury. Animal phobias are very common in childhood and usually disappear without treatment. Phobias of blood or injury often begin in adolescence or young adulthood. Most of the specific phobias begin in the third or fourth decade. Treatment may not be necessary, but if it is required, therapy for phobias can be very successful.
The cause of phobias is uncertain, but there is mounting evidence that a person who develops these inordinate fears has inherited an overactive nervous system. Whatever the cause, phobias tend to become self-perpetuating through three major mechanisms:
- A stressful or phobic situation causes an outpouring of adrenaline that provokes very unpleasant physical and emotional reactions. The person’s heart rate may accelerate; the mouth may become dry and the hands sweaty; there may be tremors; breathing can be shallow, rapid and feel impaired. The person may become pale, feel nauseated and have an urge to urinate or defecate.
- The secondary reaction is a compounding of these symptoms because he feels others can see that something is wrong with him, adding even more to his embarrassment and fear.
- The third mechanism is called anticipatory anxiety, which means the person is so fearful of the anxiety reaction and its presumed consequence that anxiety develops simply over the thought of being in a fear-producing situation. This causes further nervous system arousal and increases the likelihood of having an anxiety reaction in the situation.
The hallmark of successful treatment centers on the concept of desensitization or de-conditioning. Social phobias are best treated with a combination of psychotherapy and medications called:
- Beta blockers, which block the adrenaline-type physical reactions.
- Tranquilizers, which block the subjective symptoms of fear.
Once the physical and emotional reactions are under control, the person then needs to confront the situation from the mildest example of what would trigger the phobia, until he can eventually engage in the most severe form of the situation. Repeated success results in desensitization so the person loses the anticipatory fear and his entire nervous system settles down. Finally, he can stop his medications and continue to have success in the situations that formerly aroused incapacitating anxiety.
Simple phobias, and in some cases social phobias, can be treated strictly through behavioral techniques that result in desensitization. All of these techniques are highly successful. The Christian has additional resources. By claiming on a moment to moment basis God’s promise that He will never leave or forsake us, we have assurance that He will go “through the river and the fire” with us and that we will not be “swept away or burned up.”
By focusing on God’s unconditional love and forgiveness, believers will be less vulnerable to what others happen to think. Queen Esther said, “If I perish, I perish,” and the apostle Paul was willing to quote, “Be a fool for Christ’s sake.” These two individuals did not have anticipatory anxiety because they were not intimidated by real or imagined consequences.
Christians are better able to claim or stand on the promises when they are not overwhelmed by physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety. Medications and therapy can help reduce these symptoms so that they are better able to appropriate the powerful, healing, protective Christian principles that are so numerous throughout Scripture.