What is a Phobia?

A phobia is an irrational fear of an object or situation. 

1 of 12

DSM-5 categories of phobias

All phobias are categorised by excessive fear and anxiety, triggered by an object, place or situation. 

Specific Phobia: Phobia of an object, such as an animal, body part or situation. An example of this is flying or having an injection.

Social anxiety: A phobia of a social situation such as public speaking or using a public toilet.

Agoraphobia: A phobia of being outside or in a public place. 

2 of 12

Behavioural Characteristics of Phobias

We respond by feeling high levels of anxiety and trying to eescape. The fear response of phobias is the same we feel for any other fear even if it's irrational.

Panic: A phobic person may panic in response to the presence of a phobia stimulus. Panic may incolve a range of behaviours including screaming, crying and running away. Children may react slightly differently by freezing, clinging or having a tantrum.

Avoidance: Unless the sufferer is making a conscious effort to face their fear, they tend to go to alot of effort to avoid it. This can make it hard going about daily life. for example, someone with a phobia of public toilets would have limit how much time they spend out in relation to how long they can last without the toilet. This can in turn interfere with work, education and social life.

Endurance: The alternative to avoidance is endurance. It is when the sufferer remains in the presence of the phobic stimulus but continues to feel the high levels of anxiety. This may be avoidable in some sit6uations, such as for someone with a phobia of flying s you can't stop the plane to get off if you are anxious. 

3 of 12

Emotional explanations of phobias

Anxiety: Phobias are class as anxiety disorders, but by defiition, they involve an emotional response of fear and anxiety. A nxiety of an unpleasant state of high arousal, which prevents the sufferer from relaxing and makes it difficult to experience any positive emotion. Anxiety can  be long term and the fear is immediate and extremely unpleasant response we encounter when we are in the presence of think of a phobia stimulus. An example is arachnaphobia. The anxiety levels will increase when in an environment associated with spiders such as the garden shed. This is a general response to the situation. When you see a spider you actually experience fear - A very strong emotional response directed to the spider itself.

Emotional responses are unreasonable: The emotional response we feel go beyond what is reasonable. For example, spiders are tiny and harmless, whicih is wildly disproportionate to any danger you will face when you ecounter a spider in your garden shed.

4 of 12

Cognitive characteristics of phobias

Selective attention to the phobic stimulus: If a sufferer can see the phobic stimulus, it is hard to look away. Keeping our attention on something really dangerous is a good thing as it gives us the best chance of reacting quickly to threat. Hoever, this isnt as useful when the fear is irrational. For example, a pogonomophobia would struggle to concentrate on what they are doing when a person with a beard is in the room.

Irrationla beliefs: A phobic may hold irrational beliefs in relation to phobic stimuli. For example, a social phobic person may hold beliefs like 'if i blush people will think i'm weak' . This kind of belief increases the pressure on the sufferer to perform well in social situations.

Cognitiive distrotions: The phobics perception of the phobic stumulus may be distorted. For example, an ophidiophobic may see snakes as alien and aggressive looking 

5 of 12

Behavioural Approach to explaining - 2 process mod

Mower poropsed the two-process model to explain how we aquire and  maintain phobias. 

  • We aquire phobias through classical conditioning. This involves learning to associate something that we have no fear of (neutral stimulus) with something that already triggers a fear response (unconditioned stimulus)
  • Watson and Rayer created a phobia in a 9 month old baby called Little Albert. Albert showed no unusual anxiety at the start of the study. When he was shown a white rat he tried to play with it. Whenever the rat was presented they made a loud frightening noise by banging an iron bar close to Albert's ear. This noise is an Unconditioned stimulus (UCS) which creates an unconditioned response (UCR) of fear. When the rat, Neutral stimulus (NS) and the UCS are encountered close together in time, the NS becomes associated with the UCS and both now produce a fear response. Albert was now frightened when he saw a rat. The rat is now the Conditioned stimulus (CS) that produces a Conditioned Response (CR) of fear. The conditioning then generalised to similar objects. They tested Albert by showing him other furry objects such as a fur coat and cotton wool. Little Albert displayed distress at the sight of these things.
6 of 12

Maintainance of phobias - 2 process behavioural ex

  • Responses acquired by classical conditioning usually tends to decline over time. However, they are often long lasting, and Mower explained this as a result of operatnt conditioning. 
  • Operant conditioning takes place when our behaviour is reinforced or punished. Reinforcement tends to increase the frequency of a behaviour. This is true of both negative and positive reinforcement. 
  • In the case of Negative reinforecment, an individual avoids a situation that is unpleasant which results in a desirable conseuquence , not feeling the anxiety, so the avoidance behaviour will be repeated.
  • This reduction in fear reinforces the avoidance behaviour so the phobia is maintained.
7 of 12

The behavioural approach to explaining phobias AO3

Good explanatory power. It explains how phobias can be maintained over time which has important implications for therapies as it explains why patients need to be exposed to their feared stimulus. Once the patient is prevented from practising their avoidance behaviour, the behaviour ceases to be reinforced so it declines. This is a strength, and increases the validity of the 2 process model due to its application to therapies.

Alternative explanations for avoidance behaviour. Not all avoiodance behaviour associated with phobias is the result of anxiety reduction. There is evidence to suggest that at least some avoidance behaviour appears to be motivated by the positive feelings of safety. So, the motivating factor in coosing to not leave the house isnt to avoid the phobic stimulus, but to stick with the safety factor. This expains why patients with agoraphobiacan leave the house with a trusted person with realivitely little anxiety but not alone. This lowers the validity of the 2 process model as it suggests that avoidance is motivated by anxiety reduction.

An incomplete explanation of phobias.  there are some aspects of phobic behaviour that requires further explaining. A researcher pointed out that evolutionary factors may have an important role in phobias but the 2 process modle doesnt explain this. we easily acquire phobias of things that have been a source of danger in our evolutionary past. It is adaptive to acquire these fears which is known as boilogical reparedness, the innate predisposition to acquire certain fears. However, it is rare to develop a fear of cars and guns which are actually more dangerous to us today. This is because they have only existed recently, so we are not biologically prepared to learn fear responses towards them. This lowers the validity of the 2 process model as it shows that theere is more to phobias than just conditioning. 

8 of 12

Systematic Desensitisation Behavioural approach to

  • A behavioural therapy aimed to gradually reduce phobic anxiety through the principle of classical conditioning. There are 3 processes involoved:
  • The anxiety heirarchy: put together by the patient and therapist. It is a list of situations related to the phobic stimulus that provokes anxiety aranged in an order of least to most frightening. For someone with arachnophobia, looking at a photo of a spider would be least and holding one the most frightgening. 
  • Relaxation: The therapist teaches the patient relaxation techgniques to use duriing therapy such as mindfullness and meditation.
  • Exposure: The patient is exposed to the phobic stimulus while relaxed. This takes part across multiple sessions starting at the bottom of the heirarchy. When the patient can stay in a relaxed state around the lower levels of the heirarchy, then they move up a level, but they can move back if they wish. The treatment is successful when the patient can stay relaxed in situations high on the heirarchy.
9 of 12

Systematic Desensitisation AO3

It is effective. Research shows that systematic desensitisation is effective in the treatment of specific phobias. A researcher followed up 42 patients who had been treated for spider phobia in 45 min sessions of SD. Spider phobia was assessed on several measures including the spider questionnaire, and by assessing the response to a spider. A control group was assessed by relaxation without exposure. After 3 months and 33 months after the treatment, the SD group were less fearful than the relaxation group. Increases validity of SD as it is helpful in treating phobais.

It is suitable for a diverse range of patients. Alternatives are not as well suited to many patiens like SD. For example, so sufferers of phobias also have learning difficulties, which can make it difficult for them to uderstand what is happening during flooding or to engange with some cognitive therapies to reflect on what you are thinking. For these patients, SD isnt the most appropriate therapies therefor lowering the validity of SD as a way of treating phobias.

It is acceptable to patients. Those given the choice between SD and flooding prefer SD as it involves less trauma and it includes some elements that are pleasant such as relaxation. This is relfected by the low refusal rates of SD. This then increases the validity of SD as a treatment of phobias.

10 of 12

Flooding - Behavioural treatment

  • Flooding involves exposing phobics patients to their phobic stimulus without a gradual build up oro relaxation techniques. It involves immediate exposure, so and aracnophobic would have a spider crawling over them for a long period of time. Flooding usually lasts longer than a session of SD, around 2-3 hours, but only 1 long session is needed to cure the phobia. 
  • Without avoidance behaviour, the phobic person is able to see that the phobia stimulus is harmless. 
  • In classical conditioning terms this is extinction. This is where the conditioned stimulus is presented, a dog, without the unconditioned stimulus, being bitten. The result of this is that the conditioned stimulus no longer produces the conditioned response of fear. 
  • In some cases, the phobic person may become relaxed in the presence of the phobic stimulus as they have become exausted. 
  • Flooding isnt unethical but isnt pleasant, so it is important that patients give full informed consent and that they are fully prepared and given the choice between flooding and SD. 
11 of 12

Flooding A03

It is cost effective. Flooing is at least a\s effective as other treatments. Studies that have compared Flooding with cognitive therapies have found that Flooding is highl effective and a quicker alternative. This increases the validity of Flooding as a treatment of phobias as it means that patients are free of their phobia quicker, and it is cheaper. 

It is less effective for some types of phobia. It appears to be less effective for complex phobias like social phobias. This may be because social phobias have cognitive aspects for example, a person who has a social phobia doesnt simply have an anxiety response, they think unpleasant thoughts about the social situation. This type of phobia may benefit more from cognitive treatments such as treatments that tackle irrational thinking. Therefore, Flooding as a treatment for phobias is decreased.

The treatment is traumatic for patients. The problem isnt that Flooding is unethical but the fact that people are not willing to keep going to the end. This lowers the validity of Flooding as a treatment for phobias as time and money is often wasted preparing the patient only to have them refuse to start or complete treatment.

12 of 12


No comments have yet been made

Similar Psychology resources:

See all Psychology resources »See all Phobic disorders resources »