MadSci Network: Medicine

Re: I have this 'phobia'?

Date: Wed Feb 10 10:00:16 1999
Posted By: joshua rodefer, Post-doc/Fellow, behavioral biology, harvard medical school-nerprc
Area of science: Medicine
ID: 918172909.Me

Hi Brandon, 

You asked whether getting all "panicky" in a group of people would be 
considered claustrophobia.  The short answer is no.  CLAUSTROPHOBIA is 
generally defined as a fear of enclosed or small spaces.  You will 
sometimes see this on TV shows and movies where the writers have created a 
seen where some person with claustrophobia gets stuck in an elevator or 
closet and then gets anxious.

What you describe might fall under the classification of OCHLOPHOBIA, or 
the fear crowds.  There are *many* types of phobias, but the most complex 
and debilitating phobia of all is known as AGORAPHOBIA, or the fear of open 
or public places.  People with agoraphobia often do not leave their house 
for months or years.

All these phobias (and others disorders, like panic attacks), fall under 
the larger category of ANXIETY disorders.  Panic attacks are generally 
characterized by a sudden and overwhelming experience of terror or fright. 
Lots of clinicians think panic attacks are a normal fear response that 
occurs at an inappropriate time.

This is different from phobias, which are usually considered to be 
persistent (long lasting) and irrational fears that are very narrowly 
defined (such as a fear of spiders, but not of grasshoppers or flies).  The 
irrational part is important because it is normal to fear many things (like 
guns or snakes) that may cause harm.  However, an unloaded gun or a snake 
that is not poisonous is obviously less harmful than a loaded gun or a 
poisonous snake.  A person is generally not considered to have a phobia 
unless the person actively tries to avoid contact with whatever causes his 
or her irrational fear.  This AVOIDANCE is also what makes treating phobias 
difficult because the behavior of avoidance prevents feeling any anxious 
feelings in the first place (example: if you fear heights, you generally 
try not to go up in tall buildings, so you usually feel okay).  The 
treatment of phobias often has clinicians trying to get the patient to 
actively confront the fear in small steps.

If you just get a little nervous when you are in crowds, then you might 
just be feeling a little anxious or uncomfortable because of other reasons 
(such as you've never been in large crowds before).  Keep in mind that most 
people get nervous about some type of situation or item (I always get 
nervous when I have to teach or talk to a group of people).  However, as 
with any medical problem, you should talk to your doctor or health care 
professional to accurately assess what might you may or may not be 

Here are a few web sites might be of interest to you (it is sort of fun to 
guess what the different phobias represent).

Phun Phobia Phacts

Alphabetical list of phobias

The American Psychological Association

Hope this answered some of your questions.
Good luck,

Josh Rodefer, Ph.D.
Harvard Medical School

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