Join The Conversation With Mishpacha's Weekly Newsletter



Trapped by Fear: The Dynamics and Treatment of Phobias

Shira Yehudit Djlilmand

Spiders and snakes, planes and people, elevators and enclosed spaces. What’s the connection? These are just some of the things that cause such intense fear in some people that the fear becomes a phobia. But what exactly is a phobia — and can it be cured?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Every time I sit in a crowded bus, with people standing up all around me, squashing me so that I can’t see or move, I can feel the panic rising within me. I want to scream and push my way outside into the fresh air so I can breathe, but I force myself to sit quietly. I manage to control the panic but it’s there, lurking inside, threatening to burst out. I have the same feeling every time I can’t remove my wedding ring, or a button on my coat gets stuck and I can’t take it off. Like my mother before me, I suffer from claustrophobia, a fear of enclosed spaces.

Or do I? What exactly is a phobia, and how does it differ from a severe fear?

What Is a Phobia?

To obtain some clarity, Family First turned to the prominent Orthodox psychologist Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Levitz, an expert on the treatment of phobias. Dr. Levitz is the founding director of the Family Institute of Neve Yerushalayim and a clinical psychologist with over thirty-five years of clinical practice within the religious community. More relevantly, Dr. Levitz was one of the pioneers in the treatment of phobias. Dr. Levitz opened the first phobia clinics in New York in the 1970s, originally to treat people suffering from a fear of flying, and then broadening out into phobias in general.

Dr. Levitz explains that a phobia is diagnosed by looking at the extent to which it affects a person’s life. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV), which defines mental disorders, states that to be considered a phobia, a fear must “significantly interfere with the sufferer’s daily life.” For example, for a city-dweller, a fear of snakes may not become a phobia, as he may never have to face a snake, whereas for a country farmer, the same fear may be a severe problem requiring treatment.

Another way to differentiate between a phobia and a fear is to assess the rationality of the fear.

“There’s an irrational component to phobia, as contrasted with fear of something objectively dangerous,” Dr Levitz explains. “Look, if you’re in a room with a hungry lion and you’re afraid, that’s good!”

If we compare this with being afraid to get in an elevator because we might die from lack of air, we have to look at how realistic that fear is. Phobias are based on the fear of something dangerous happening, but, as Dr. Levitz points out, usually the statistical probability of that something happening is very, very low. For example, planes do crash — but how often?

There is, however, sometimes a gray area between phobia and fear. Often the diagnosis may depend on the context. Dr. Levitz gives us the all-too-real example of people in Israel who avoid traveling in buses or eating in restaurants, or if they do, they seek out the “safest” place to sit. It might sound irrational, but in the wake of frequent terror attacks, such behavior might actually make sense.

A phobia can be described as a classic avoidance disorder, whereby the sufferer will do almost anything to avoid coming into contact with the feared object. The very avoidance then reinforces the phobia, and thus the sufferer becomes even more anxious about the object, creating a vicious circle of fear.

Finally, a phobia can also be diagnosed according to the symptoms displayed. Common symptoms of a phobic reaction are panic attacks, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, trembling or shaking, and “an intense desire to flee the situation.” Some of these symptoms may be present in the face of a regular fear, but again, such symptoms would be understandable if faced with that hungry lion, but not if faced with an elevator or a harmless spider.

 

To read the rest of this story, please buy this issue of Mishpacha or sign up for a weekly subscription.

Share this page with a friend. Fill in the information below, and we'll email your friend a link to this page on your behalf.

Your name
Your email address
You friend's name
Your friend's email address
Please type the characters you see in the image into the box provided.
CAPTCHA
Message


MM217
 
Evolution vs. Revolution
Shoshana Friedman I call it the “what happened to my magazine?” response
Up, Up, and Away
Rabbi Moshe Grylak What a fraught subject Eretz Yisrael is, to this day
Where Do You Come From?
Yonoson Rosenblum Could they be IDF officers with no Jewish knowledge?
Heaven Help Us
Eytan Kobre Writing about anti-Semitism should rouse, not soothe
Work/Life Solutions with Chedva Kleinhandler
Moe Mernick “Failures are our compass to success”
An Un-Scientific Survey
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman Are Jerusalemites unfriendly? Not necessarily
Out of Anger
Jacob L. Freedman How Angry Lawyer was finally able to calm down
5 Things You Didn’t Know about…Yitzy Bald
Riki Goldstein He composed his first melody at eight years old
When the Floodgates of Song Open, You’re Never Too Old
Riki Goldstein Chazzan Pinchas Wolf was unknown until three years ago
Who Helped Advance These Popular Entertainers?
Riki Goldstein Unsung deeds that boosted performers into the limelight
Your Task? Ask
Faigy Peritzman A tangible legacy I want to pass on to my children
Are You There?
Sarah Chana Radcliffe Emotional withdrawal makes others feel lonely, abandoned
A Peace of a Whole
Rebbetzin Debbie Greenblatt Love shalom more than you love being right
Seminary Applications
Rabbi Zecharya Greenwald, as told to Ariella Schiller It’s just as hard for seminaries to reject you