Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychological disorder which can sometimes result for those who have experienced trauma . Some studies have shown that the risk of other anxiety disorders, including phobias, is also increased in the months following a serious traumatic event. Additionally, some of the symptoms of PTSD can mirror those of phobias, making diagnosis more difficult. The phobic response is often seen as likely to be a symptom of the trauma
A phobia is a feeling of fear or anxiety that makes approaching the dreaded situation very stressful and difficult. Anxiety is a normal and valuable emotion. It reminds us to keep ourselves safe, to avoid getting into danger or to cope if we are unfortunately caught up in a risky situation. It is the ancient ‘fight/flight/freeze’ reaction that allows people and animals to survive. Phobias are a form of excessive and unnecessary anxiety at times where it might not seem rational to feel so highly anxious, or in fact anxious at all!
Anyone can experience an event once, such as being stung by a bee, or having a spider land on you, and if the emotion of fear is strong enough, that is all it takes to create a phobia. If you have been bitten by a dog, you may go onto develop a phobia of dogs because the original trauma of being bitten, has left you traumatised and afraid.
PTSD is the same: you only have to be involved in one traumatic event to be traumatized long term (getting flashbacks etc). People can develop a phobia about anything at all, from spiders to birds, to colours, sounds. Anxiety and fear is a normal response - their purpose is to alert us to possible danger. These signals cause physiological changes in the body. Sometimes the part of the brain in which associations are made become hypersensitive to particular cues. If the original fear was sufficiently intense, it can become as if your brain is stuck on scared to death.
This process works by generalizing, linking a highly emotional event with stimuli that’s present. For instance, if an attacker is wearing a certain body spray scent, an aftershave, it can become a trigger in the future which reminds the individual of the original trauma.
If you were mugged and your attacker wore a hoodie, when they mugged you, you may get a phobia of hoodies or even any kind of head gear. If you have developed a fear of a certain song because it was playing in the background when you were originally traumatised, each time you hear the song in the future, it may flood you with memories of the original trauma, it becomes a trigger.
Some people who have suffered trauma do go on to develop PTSD, phobias, or other disorders whilst others don't and its not easy to predict who will develop PTSD. Nonetheless, certain specific risk factors make it more likely that a disorder will occur. These include, but are not limited to:
Loss of a Loved One
Separation or Isolation
Displacement from Home or Family
Serious Harm to Self or Loved Ones
Age, gender, and social class also appear to play a role, with middle-aged females from a lower socioeconomic background apparently the most susceptible to developing the kind of issues often linked to ptsd.. However, PTSD, phobias and other disorders can strike anyone. But any event could trigger a strong fear (phobic) response following trauma, and this in turn could also lead to PTSD.
So it's not surprizing given the traumatic experiences some people go through, that they may be prone to developing a phobia. In the case of those who have suffered a traumatic event, it could be a phobia of driving following a serious car crash, it would be a phobia of storms, following being caught up in a hurricane. For abuse Survivors it could be a phobia of a smell, touch or sound that reminds them of their abuse etc.
The treatment for PTSD is different than for a phobia because often traumatic experiences can significantly change the way we think about the world and ourselves, and so therapy has to help people address these fundamental changes. People can often experience severe emotional disturbances such as panic attacks, shame, guilt and depression that aren’t usually emotions that typically occur for most people due to phobias. However, where a phobia has developed as a result of a traumatic event, leading to PTSD, these feelings, fears, may all be caught up into why a person has developed a phobia especially if this occured following a traumatic event, or got worse as a result of one.
Whilst research shows that both phobias and PTSD can improve on their own, it is often the case that professional help is needed at some stage
With an anxiety disorder such as a phobia or PTSD, the trigger may be external or internal, and provokes some sense of fear, dread, danger or threat. Though the sufferer knows that the threat is not realistic and out of proportion to an extreme degree, he has no conscious control over his reaction.
Luckily the brain can be retrained, to increase it's window of tolerance, and learn to become less sensitized to triggering events. We can learn to trigger a calm attack just as we have become conditioned to trigger a phobic response.