When fear becomes an illness

spider on a wall. (picture: Marco Barnebeck/pixelio.de)
Spiders: Beautiful? Dangerous? Not really. But some people develop a pronounced spider phobia. (picture: Marco Barnebeck/pixelio.de)

Usually fear is something good as it warns people when things are getting dangerous. It is our personal alarm system.

But if anxiety causes a loss of control, panic attacks or paralysis, there is an anxiety disorder; the most common mental illness of our time.

We all know fear from an early age. The fear of being alone. Fear of the dark, test anxiety, fear of thunderstorms, later fear of getting ill, loneliness, or finally death. Fears are part of our normal development.

10 to 15 percent of the population affected

More and more people, it is estimated 10-15 percent of the population are affected by anxiety disorders. Women are affected about three times more frequently than men. The costs to cure the affected people are huge.

Fear becomes a disorder if it occurs repeatedly in situations which actually are not dangerous at all; if the fear is disproportional to the real situation.  The fear often expressed by physical symptoms such as palpitations, dizziness, tremors, sweating, decreased mental and physical strength or discomfort in the gastrointestinal tract.

Agoraphobia: "I'm trapped"

The most common phobia is called agoraphobia. This is present in people who have a strong discomfort in certain places, or just feel scared. These include public areas or places with large crowds.

Also long journeys alone can cause this phenomenon. Common to all these situations, the affected believe that in case of panic or potentially threatening situations they would not be able to escape fast enough, that help would not arrive in time or that they could get into embarrassing situations.

Sufferers show a strong avoidance behaviour that often leads to a total fortification - with the result of new fears of isolation and the loss of close friends and family.

Social phobia

People with social phobias (anthropophobia) avoid appearances in society. They are afraid not to meet expectations of others and meet rejection.

The above symptoms can occur, as well as inhibition of speech, frequent slips of the tongue or difficulty breathing, nausea, up to panic attacks.

Airplanes, elevators, spiders ...

And finally there are the specific phobias which are directed against a specific object or against a particular situation. For example, people develop phobias such as the well-known arachnophobia, the fear of spiders.

In situational phobias anxiety disorders occur for example in airplanes, in elevators or in heights. Other people develop a phobia of needles or blood.

Tight chest

The body prepares itself for fighting or escaping the “dangerous” situation with increased adrenaline secretion.  This leads to symptoms such as shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, heart palpitations or pain, tremors, sweating, nausea or other symptoms.

Affected often believe that they would suffer from a heart attack. Usually the symptoms go away with the adrenaline degradation after a few minutes.

long tunnel. (picture: A. Dreher/pixelio.de)
When tunnels become a problem: Agoraphobia. (picture: A. Dreher/pixelio.de)

Worrying about everyone and everything

Very often are so-called "general" anxiety disorders. People with generalised anxiety disorders worry about everything and everyone and have negative premonitions.

Sufferers are worried and anxious, without actual be cause for concern. Out of sheer worry and anxiety, they can hardly cope with everyday challenges.

Isolation and depression

Additionally to acute symptoms, anxiety disorders can cause long-term depression and total isolation but can also lead to increased addictive behaviour. Chronic fears, phobias and panic attacks use up all life energy of the victims. Everything seems to be affected negatively.

In order to suppress the fears get rid of physical problems, many patients turn to pills, alcohol or drugs; and get into a vicious circle that is hard to break.

Early diagnosis is important

It is important to be able to make the diagnosis as early as possible. With early therapies, an anxiety disorder can be treated.

The treatment is usually based on an individually tailored psychotherapy, which is accompanied by drug therapy if symptoms are severe.

In the cognitive-behavioural therapy for phobias, anxiety and panic disorder affected people increasingly face their fears or with fear associated specific situations – with the inclusion of knowledge cognitive intervention and confrontation process – until all previously shunned situations can be integrated into normal life.


Text: P. Gunti

Translation: MPL – 02/2012

Pictures: pixelio.de