Claustrophobia. Agoraphobia. Triskaidekaphobia. All of these names have one thing in common: they add mystery and confusion to what is already one of the most poorly understood aspects of human behavior.
Phobias have always been classified according to their obvious triggers; the objects or situations that provoke the fear. These triggers are customarily dressed in exotic Greek and Latin labels, giving each phobia a more scientific air.
Unfortunately, the traditional phobic classification system has shed little light on the real, but hidden mechanisms responsible for creating and shaping phobic behavior. In fact, this Greek and Latin name-calling may have done a great deal of harm.
For instead of encouraging us to search for underlying common denominators capable of unlocking the many secrets of phobic behavior, it has led many to believe that these secrets are already known.
Even worse, this classification system has unintentionally led many of the doctors believe that each and every type of phobia i.e. xenophobia, aerophobia, etc. is a separate and distinct disorder with a unique cause having no relation to other phobias aside from the obvious similarity in symptoms.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
The drawbacks of the traditional classification system are best illustrated with a few examples.
Suppose that a woman is cynophobic and agoraphobic. What do these two labels tell us, apart from the fact that she is afraid of dogs and wide-open spaces?
According to the current classification system, this woman suffers from two separate phobic illnesses, each requiring individual treatment. But what if her fear of dogs stems from a realistic fear of being chased by a dog into a wide-open space, namely, the street (realistic, because it has happened to her). If so, her fear of dogs is clearly part and parcel of her fear of wide-open spaces. The two are not separate disorders.
The connection between this woman´s agoraphobia and her gynophobia is vital if she is to receive proper treatment. But the traditional classification system does not encourage doctors to look for such interrelationships. Let’s look at another example.
Fear of Flying:
Four men suffer from aerophobia, the fear of flying. Although all four men are classified as having the same illness, a closer examination might reveal that each fears flying for a completely different reason.
One man, for example, may be afraid to fly because his neighbor recently died in a plane crash. Another may be afraid because planes fly over water and he can’t swim, hence he does not fear all flying, just flying over water. The third may be afraid of small enclosed spaces, such as the cabin of an airplane. And the fourth man may be afraid of heights.
Each of these possibilities suggests something entirely different about the mechanisms responsible for the fear of flying. More important, these differences clearly demonstrate that each case may require a different treatment approach.
But once we label all four men “aerophobic,” we unwittingly make a tragic mistake. For our label implies that one common mechanism is responsible for the fears of all four men. This makes no more sense than assuming that four men with the same name have the same mother. Yet in essence, this is exactly what we are doing.
This kind of mistake can only encourage physicians and other therapists to search for answers in all the wrong directions. Worse, it encourages them to subject all four men to the same treatment regimen. At best, the results of this kind of treatment approach will be less than satisfactory for at least three of the four.
Two Flaws in the System:
These examples clearly illustrate that two important characteristics of phobic behavior are masked by our traditional classification system:
o Phobias of different names may have one and the same underlying mechanism.
o Phobias of the same name may have distinctly different underlying mechanisms.
Superficial phobic triggers provide an important clue to understanding phobic behavior, but they are only one aspect of the highly complex phobic phenomenon.
By focusing only on these triggers, we are ignoring the far more important underlying mechanisms that create and shape phobic behavior. This interferes with our ability to make an accurate diagnosis and prevents us from developing a successful treatment approach.