A phobia is an intense, overwhelming, uncontrollable, and irrational fear of something, whether it is a physical something or simply a situation. So anyone who manifests these symptoms has a phobia. There are even common signs that make it possible to recognize a phobia in someone else. For instance, when confronted with the object or circumstance of their fear, a person with a phobia will often experience a tightening of the throat, shortness of breath, queasy stomach, elevated pulse rate and blood pressure, flushing of the face, and trembling. Note that all of these are normal physiological responses to intense fear.
Determining if you have a phobia is far more simple than treating one, and treating such an affliction is every bit as important as being able to determine if we have a phobia. Phobias can begin to affect someone suddenly, and may or may not have an actual cause. They can affect a person in any profession, at any age, and though it is rare, they can sometimes vanish as quickly as they came. Some studies suggest that most people have at least one phobia, though if it is fairly mild, they may not have honestly realized it.
An example: For much of my life, I had a totally irrational fear of ants. Normally, a single ant didn’t cause me much stress. But if I was standing and looked down to find my shoes crawling with ants, sheer panic would set in. I would not be able to breath, my heart would immediately start pounding very fast and hard, and at times, I’d even get a headache, so quickly that it would be throbbing practically before I knew it. At first, I had no idea why I had such a reaction to ants.
It took a good deal of thought and memory searching before I found the source of the fear. When I was 5 years old, my family went on a tour of the national parks in the Western US. At one point, we stopped at what is now Arches National Park (at the time it was a national monument), to visit some people my father had worked with at Crater Lake National Park. I went out to play with their kids, and after a time, I jumped out of a swing sideways, and landed up to my waist in a nest of fire ants. The other kids grabbed my arms and pulled me out, getting bit and stung many times in the process, and not before I received many, many bites and stings.
Once I realized that this was the initial cause, I could begin thinking more rationally about ants. In fact, I began to study them and read every book on ants that was offered at our library. I even got an ant farm and spent literally hours, just watching the ants as they created their tunnels. Gradually, and it was definitely a gradual process, my fear faded. Even today, however, if I suddenly and unexpectedly find myself standing in an ant hill, I feel a moment of panic before I am able to control it. I have no idea if I will ever totally overcome the phobia, but it is at least to the point that it is controllable.
Mine was not the worst sort of phobia, which is totally incapacitating, but the good news is that there are a growing number of clinics that are set up to specifically help people to overcome this, using a very similar time consuming therapy.