How Do Phobias and Substance Abuse Relate?
Phobias are irrational fears and can originate from a negative experience with an object, person, or event that is feared. A phobia can lead to avoidance where the individual will go to great lengths to avoid the object, person, or event. There are hundreds of phobias recognized by mental health professionals including but certainly not limited to spiders, flying, or heights. Phobias can affect how one thinks and for those with phobias, they seem real and can affect activities of daily living.
It might seem strange to think about phobias and substance abuse; however, the issue is not about a fear of drinking or using drugs but rather how a person with a phobia can and do self-medicate. Phobias create a great deal of anxiety and the symptoms of anxiety can be overwhelming. These symptoms can include rapid heart rate, feeling closed in, feeling out of control, and difficulty breathing.
Some people find relief of phobic symptoms through alcohol and drugs. There are many who will take an anti-anxiety medication or have a drink if exposed to the phobic situation to calm down. If the phobic situation is one that cannot be avoided, such as a person who needs to travel for work yet has a fear of flying, they may rely on alcohol and drugs to suppress the anxious symptoms. In addition, using alcohol and drugs may also give the individual a heightened sense of self-confidence, which can exacerbate the substance use.
Specific phobias are rarely related to substance use disorders but the anxiety brought on by a phobia, can be combined with a substance use disorder. This is called comorbidity or a co-occurring disorder.
There is research to support that women develop phobias differently than men. Women generally develop a phobia before the substance use disorder. Women are more likely to experience fear, anxiety, and depression and are more likely to use alcohol or drugs to counter these feelings. Phobic women are more likely to turn to alcohol and other drugs to get relief even if the relief is temporary.
Phobias are treatable and so are substance use disorders. If a person has a comorbid phobia and substance use disorder, they should find a professional that is trained in treating comorbid disorders. Many professionals believe that one disorder causes the other; therefore, will only treat one disorder hoping the other will simply go away on its own. This is not true and both disorders need to be addressed and treated.