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Anxiety and Stress Disorders

Development of Phobias Late in Life

09/22/2005

Question:

I`m in my 50`s and never had a fear of heights or claustrophobia, but I do now to a certain extent. And no incidents have taken place that I know of to trigger them. Why would someone develop phobias that late in life, for no apparent reason? Thanks

Answer:

Interestingly enough, many people who develop what they think are "phobias" may actually have other anxiety related disorders.  "Phobias," which are a marked and persistent fear that is excessive and unrealistic and triggered by the actual or anticipated presence of an animal, situation or environmental experience occurs in about 8 - 10% of people.  Most people have mild phobias - seeing a spider or looking out a top floor balcony might provoke uneasiness or a mild fear and make somebody leave or back away from a situation.  Severe phobias are more rare.

But not everyone who is afraid of something or someplace  actually not has a "phobia;" but rather, they may have panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder or even an obsessive-compulsive disorder that shows up in specific situations, and looks, on the outside, like a phobia.  For example, someone who is afraid of driving might have a "driving phobia," but they might also have a panic disorder, or post-traumatic stress after an accident or even obsessive thoughts about losing control behind the wheel, all of which lead to feelings of anxiety, discomfort and fear.  It is important when anxiety and fears start interfering with your normal routine, your job or work or your relationships that you seek an evaluation by first, your primary care provider (like a family physician) and most likely also a mental health professional (a counselor or psychologist).

These disorders can appear at any age.  Often, on close reflection, there are suggestions of mild anxiety problems at other times in one's life, before the problem gets to a point where normal activities and the pleasures of life are affected.

Good luck.

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Response by:

Nancy   Elder, MD Nancy Elder, MD
Associate Professor
College of Medicine
University of Cincinnati