Phobias: They aren’t just in your head, including a fear of sharks
More than 8 percent of the U.S. population has been diagnosed with some type of phobia, with the most common being social phobias, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. A phobia is diagnosed using DSM-5 criteria, which says a patient must show marked fear or anxiety about something specific that leads to severe impairment of his or her quality of life, and must experience these feelings for at least six months.
“Anxiety helps us get things done. The difference between normal, natural anxiety and a clinical phobia boils down to the intensity of your reaction,” says Cindi Flores, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the UF Health College of Medicine department of psychiatry. “A phobia generally affects social relationships, self care and work life in a more intense way than the natural anxiety that we have on a daily basis.”
For example, if the theme from “Jaws” plays in your head during each trip to the beach, you may be suffering from galeophobia, or the fear of sharks. A fear of sharks may not stem from a specific trigger, but from vicariously learning, like from a movie or news report. Some galeophobia is so strong that the word “shark,” or a video or picture of one can trigger discomfort or feelings of panic.
Sharks are awesome creatures with amazing hunting prowess, so a healthy fear is normal. Even if the fear is irrational, the pattern of behavior can get stronger.
“A phobia generally affects social relationships, self care and work life in a more intense way than the natural anxiety that we have on a daily basis.” - Cindi Flores, Ph.D.
“What separates that healthy anxiety from a galeophobia is whether or not it interferes with your value system and quality of life. A person who doesn’t like the water might still be able to stick a toe in the ocean during a trip with family. A person suffering from a phobia might avoid the beach all together,” Flores says.
She said things that are paired together get wired together — for instance, a shark attack and a trip to the beach. Even if the fear is irrational, the pattern of behavior can get stronger.
The empirically-based and recommended treatment for phobias like galeophobia is exposure and response prevention therapy, which includes exposing your mind to triggers and allowing yourself to feel uncomfortable so you can change the connection with the stimulus.
“You are essentially retraining yourself to think, ‘Just because my anxiety goes off doesn’t mean that something bad is going to happen,’” Dr. Flores explains.
So you don’t need a bigger boat — just a healthy dose of shark-exposure therapy.
Don’t let phobias control your life. Make an appointment with UF Health psychiatry.