Coping with Anxiety vi: Introduction to Phobias and Phobic responses.

We are now drawing toward the conclusion of our discussion on anxiety, although not quite. There are still interesting and worthwhile points to be made, especially concerning patterns of phobic behaviour; what phobias are; and how they may be accurately identified and successfully managed. In the first place, may I say how much I hope that you have found interest in and even benefited – at least to some extent – in response to the previous blogs covering the topic of anxiety overall. Sometimes it helps to read an item or article through on at least two separate occasions before proceeding. It has always made perfect sense to me to take whatever time is required for familiarization before moving on to something new.

So let me now move, albeit briefly (although I hope adequately) to phobias, i.e. what they are and how they come to exist in the first place. In order to understand precisely what phobias are, it is necessary to, once again, bear in mind the distinction already made between healthy and objective anxiety on the one hand and neurotic anxiety on the other. Objective anxiety, you will recall we said, is the reaction or response to a real and genuine threat in our external world, e.g. we perceive a bus hurtling, seemingly out of control toward us, or floodwaters appear to be swiftly approaching the height of the doorstep and still rising.

Conversely in the case of neurotic anxiety, the source of the danger and consequent fear either has no basis in reality or (although maybe once external and part of our real world) it no longer remains so. What has happened is that over time, it has been internalised to a point where the individual may not consciously be aware that the stressor(s) have continued to exist. In that sense then, it is an irrational fear, since no valid conscious logical reason can be found to justify its existence.

Take another example, which hopefully will clarify things further. Let us imagine (by returning to those days when it was generally considered safe to do so) a mother is out shopping with her two-year-old son and leaves the pushchair bearing her child outside the plate glass window of a local baker’s shop, where she intends to make some purchases. Just as the mother ‘disappears’ into the shop, a large and friendly dog approaches the pushchair and the child (being used to dogs) offers its hand in friendly response. The dog licks the child’s hand and further encouraged by the scent of such friendliness (and as we know, dogs live and interpret their canine world largely by scent) pushes its head toward the child’s face, giving it a lick also. The child screams and the dog, now alerted to the changed scent of fear, instantly makes off.

Meanwhile, the mother – who has momentarily been preoccupied with the payment for purchases, hears the scream and in an instant is by the side of the pushchair ministering to her now tearful child. Once happily reunited, both mother and child are able to put the incident behind them and that seems to be the end of the matter. But is it? In later years, the child – now a man – continues to be comfortable when dogs are about him and he enjoys their company. Indeed, he owns such a family pet and all is well; that is until the dog – any dog – comes too near to his face. Also, licking (combined with the sense of warm breath on his face, which though not mentioned hitherto), would inevitably form an integral part of the originating experience). All of this gives rise to the experience of morbid or abnormal fear, stirring up a sense of instant, threat-induced panic: a classical phobic response.In my communication with you next week, I hope to develop the subject matter of this latest blog a little further.

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