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Feature: Phobias and
Anxiety Disorders

Don't Panic!

Phobias and other anxiety disorders affect millions of Americans. But researchers have found that there are treatments and techniques that can help people manage them.

Terry Ahmed

Today, Terry Ahmed has learned to cope with a recently developed phobia about flying.
Photo: Naomi Miller

“ No one was aware of what I was feeling.”

–Terry Ahmed

The fear first struck Terry Ahmed four years ago. "I was on a plane, and we hadn't taken off yet," he says today. "I've flown many times, and I'd never had a problem before."

Suddenly, as he sat in his window seat, hemmed in by a passenger in the next seat on a crowded flight, anxiety began to build. His breathing grew fast and shallow. "I started to feel claustrophobic and trapped; not in control, with a strong feeling of uneasiness," he adds. "It's hard to explain the feeling. In my mind, I felt isolated and alone. No one was aware of what I was feeling."

Ahmed, a Derwood, Md. resident, was experiencing for the first time what has since become a continuing phobia for him—an intense, irrational fear of something that poses little or no actual danger. Some of the more common specific phobias are closed-in places, heights, escalators, tunnels, highway driving, water, flying, snakes, and injuries involving blood.

Such phobias aren't just extreme fear; they are irrational fear of a specific thing. You may be able to ski the world's tallest mountains with ease but be unable to go above the 5th floor of an office building. While adults with phobias realize that these fears are irrational, they often find that facing—or even thinking about facing—the feared object or situation brings on a panic attack or severe anxiety.

On the plane, Terry Ahmed immediately stood up and walked to the back of the aircraft. He drank a cup of water to settle down. But the thought of going back to the window seat paralyzed him. He asked a flight attendant for an aisle seat, got it, and—just as suddenly—he was fine again.

On a different flight sometime later, he was placed in a middle seat. The uneasiness came over him again, and, without warning, he passed out. He was moved to an aisle seat, given oxygen, and a fellow passenger talked to him to help him relax. The aisle seat and the conversation eased the phobia.

As with many people who experience a phobia or related severe anxiety condition, Ahmed has found ways to cope with the challenge. He still flies when he needs to, but never in a window or middle seat. And that works well for him. But, he admits, if that option didn't work, he would most likely seek professional help to overcome the phobia. That, too, is not uncommon.

Fast Facts

  • Each year, anxiety disorders affect about 40 million American adults age 18 years and older (about 18%), filling them with fearfulness and uncertainty.
  • Unlike the relatively mild, brief anxiety caused by having to speak in public or going on a first date, anxiety disorders last at least 6 months and can get worse if they are not treated.
  • A phobia is an intense, irrational fear of something that poses little or no actual danger. More than 19 million American adults suffer from phobias; they are twice as common in women as men.
  • Anxiety disorders commonly accompany other mental or physical conditions, such as alcohol or substance abuse, which may mask anxiety symptoms or make them worse. These illnesses may need to be treated before a person will respond to treatment for the anxiety disorder.
  • Effective therapies for phobias and other anxiety disorders are available, and research is uncovering new treatments that can help.

To Find Out More

Read More "Phobias and Anxiety Disorders" Articles

Don't Panic! / Studying Anxiety Disorders / Symptoms: Personal snapshots of anxiety disorders / Treating Anxiety Disorders

Fall 2010 Issue: Volume 5 Number 3 Pages 12 - 13