What is Pharmacophobia? (An Overview)
In this blog we will discuss the symptoms, causes and treatment of Pharmacophobia.
An intense fear of medical drugs is called Pharmacophobia. It’s a type of specific phobia which comes under the category of anxiety disorders in the DSM-V.
Someone suffering from it will experience extreme anxiety when exposed to drugs.
Not just the exposure, but a mere thought of drugs can instigate really high levels of anxiety.
If the condition worsens, one will undergo full-blown panic attacks.
Usually, children are afraid of eating drugs/medicines because of their size and or taste. Apart from children, some adults too are fearful of getting choked while having a drug.
However, someone suffering from Pharmacophobia will feel immense fear and terror only at the sight of drugs.
They are unable to control their anxiety, thus, find an easy way out of it. They tend to avoid drugs in every way possible.
One will make painstaking efforts to avoid getting exposed to drugs.
This avoidance, because it produces pleasant feelings, is repeated. This repetition maintains one’s phobia, justifying their fear of drugs.
Recurrent acts of avoiding the fear stimuli can cause one to develop OCD.
According to the DSM-V, anxiety and avoidance caused by Pharmacophobia will affect one’s social and occupational functioning.
For example, one will avoid going to a doctor for the fear of him prescribing a medicine. This can lead a sufferer to develop fear of doctors (Iatrophobia).
A sufferer will avoid accompanying a family member to a hospital or pharmacy for the fear of encountering drugs.
He will hide his injuries and or health related issues from others because they fear they’ll be prescribed medicine.
As a result of these avoidances, one can develop other phobias such as Traumatophobia (fear of injury) and or fear of hospitals (Nosocomephobia).
The emergence of other phobias with Pharamcophobia can lead to one suffering from depression too.
For someone who’s not well or is suffering from a health problem, drugs are mandatory to take if prescribed by the doctor.
Otherwise, avoidance can cause grave danger.
Pharmacophobia is an irrational fear of drugs. Someone suffering from it experiences extreme anxiety in the presence of medicinal drugs.
Symptoms of Pharmacophobia
Like in the case of all other specific phobias, Pharmacophobia too has anxiety as its focal symptom.
Individuals suffering from an irrational fear of drugs suffer from extreme anxiety which, as mentioned earlier, can result in one having panic attacks.
When one undergoes extreme anxiety, the body experiences other physiological symptoms as well.
Such as increased heart rate or palpitations.
When the sufferer thinks about encountering drugs, he goes into flight or fight mode because of an adrenaline rush.
In this state, the body’s physiological responses help one make decisions when in fear causing situations.
They either decide to escape the situation (flight)-faint or suffer from panic attacks or stay and combat their fear (fight)-by taking counterproductive actions.
Sufferers of Pharmacophobia experience symptoms in different ways. One might have more severe symptoms than the other, based on their past experiences and intensity of the phobia.
Though, as the DSM-5 suggests, one must experience anxiety lasting for at least 6-months.
Symptoms one experiences in Pharmacophobia are:
- Excessive anxiety when exposed to drugs
- Excessive anxiety when thinking about drugs
- Inability to manage anxiety
- Full-blown panic attacks
- Avoiding drugs
- Increased heart beat
- Muscle tension
- Feelings of dizziness/fainting
- Feeling depressed
- Fear of an impending doom
- Excessive sweating
- Hot/cold flashes
- Butterflies in the stomach
- Drying up of the mouth
For one to be diagnosed with Pharmacophobia, a person should experience at least 3-5 of these symptoms (including anxiety).
Causes of Pharmacophobia
Like every other specific phobia, Pharmacophobia is a result of either genetics or a past traumatic experience.
Someone who has a family history of anxiety disorders or specific phobias has a higher chance of developing Pharmacophobia than someone who doesn’t.
This is because they are genetically predisposed to develop it.
Genes and neurotransmitters also play a significant role in this genetic predisposition.
This genetic tendency to develop a mental disorder/specific phobia can also be referred to as a Diathesis-stress relationship.
According to this, one with a genetic predisposition will not develop symptoms of Pharmacophobia until and unless there is some trigger event, instigating anxiety or fear related to drugs.
Someone who fears getting addicted to a specific drug will refrain from having one.
They will be so conscious of not getting exposed to them that they’ll develop a fear of drugs (Pharmacophobia).
Additionally, someone who almost choked while having a medicine or developed side effects after will be fearful of drugs.
One might have developed Pharamcophobia by hearing about someone else’s bad experience with drugs.
Or, it can be a learned response. Developing fear by looking at parents getting scared of drugs.
Therefore, both genetics and environmental factors play significant roles in developing Pharmacophobia.
Treatment of Pharmacophobia
Pharmacophobia, like all other specific phobias, has no exclusive type of treatment that is specifically designed to treat it.
Like all the other specific phobias, Pharmacophobia is treated by a number of different therapies including Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy to lower anxiety.
• Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
It is one of the most frequently used treatments for patients with almost all kinds of mental disorders.
Pharmacophobia is defined as the irrational fear of drugs. Thus, the therapist helps the patient in replacing these irrational thoughts with more rational ones.
The patients are helped out in analyzing and justifying the way they feel about their fear stimuli.
Therapists assist them in uncovering the reasons behind their fear and later they provide them with alternate, pleasant thoughts.
The patient is told to maintain a thought diary (with ABCD column) which provides them a replacement for every irrational thought they have, when thinking about a particular situation. The ABCD stands for:
i. A (antecedents) a situation or triggering event.
ii. B (belief) the thought that comes to one’s mind when in that triggering situation.
iii. C (consequences) the symptoms/feelings caused by that event/thought
iv. D (dispute) alternate, rational thoughts provided by the therapist in an attempt to dispute/challenge those irrational beliefs.
This last section of the thought diary is what really plays a role in helping the person feel good/less anxious.
• Exposure Therapy
It is one of the most frequently used ways of treating patients with Pharmacophobia (or any other kind of specific phobia).
In this therapy, the patient is exposed to the source of his fear over a certain span of time.
To begin with the therapy, the therapist exposes the patient to the least triggering stimuli, a picture of drugs for example.
As the therapy progresses and the patient is able to control his anxious feelings, imagery can be used to take the treatment a step further.
In this part of the treatment the patient is asked to visualize/imagine a situation in which he is having a drug During this process of imagery, one actually feels being in that particular situation or place, experiencing various senses.
Once the person successfully, without feeling anxious clears this step of the therapy, he is then exposed to real drugs.
While the patient is being exposed to different intensities of stimuli during the various stages of therapy, the therapist simultaneously teaches them coping exercises.
These include, breathing techniques or muscle relaxation methods to lower their anxiety, when in an actual fear/anxiety causing situation.
This teaches them how to remain calm when exposed to the fear stimuli.
Before actually starting the exposure therapy, the therapist needs to figure out the intensity of the patient’s fear, as to deduce whether they will be able to undergo this treatment, without any physical or psychological harm caused to them during the exposure processes.
However, these steps desensitize one to their fear of drugs, by exposing them to that stimuli repeatedly, until they learn to undergo the situation without anxiety/panic attacks.
This another form of treatment used with patients suffering from specific phobia or anxiety disorders.
It is used with patients who know the cause of their phobia.
First, the therapist collects the patients’ history of different fears. They then identify the real cause of the particular fear/phobia the patient has.
They then discuss any new/latest event that triggered their anxiety and fear in the past few weeks.
People coming with specific phobias are told to imagine their distress causing stimuli.
The therapist then works with the individual in order for them to overcome their fear.
In the case of Pharmacophobia, the patient will be advised on how to overcome his fear of drugs.
They do this by creating a positive imagery for the patients’ feared stimuli.
They are not just one of the many treatment therapies used for Pharmacophobia, instead they are one of the most common ways of relaxation used by many people.
Yoga tends to stimulate the meditative state of one’s mind while the person is in a particular yoga posture.
Through yoga/meditation the mind is diverted towards something more productive and calm, allowing the person to escape the negative, distress causing thoughts.
Out of a number of yoga types, one can benefit from any yoga type/pose they like. Hatha yoga is one of the different types of yoga.
The breathing techniques or the imagery one creates while in a yoga posture are the real factors that makes the person feel less anxious and diverts their mind, away from the thoughts about their fear stimuli.
• Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
This is another effective therapy used to treat Pharmacophobia.
It is more commonly used with people suffering from personality disorders, but is also useful with patients suffering from this type of specific phobia.
Coping skills are taught in the DBT group which lasts for about 6-months and can have a number of people (depending on how many join the group).
i.Half-smiling is the first module of DBT. It is a technique that is used with patients who are distressed because of their irrational thoughts.
The technique is known as ‘Half-smiling’ because the person is first advised to think about the stimuli that fears or upsets them, and while doing so they are told to lift the corners of their mouths by subtly smiling.
Smiling is not that will help one get rid of these unpleasant thoughts, it is the person’s ability to constrain itself from thinking about those thoughts while half smiling.
ii.Mindfulness, the second module, is another technique used in DBT groups which helps the individual in getting rid of those negative thoughts.
Individuals are told to focus on the present and be attentive to what is going on around them at the moment.
This helps in breaking the link between their mind and any negative thought that might come to them then.
For example, a person is told to focus on his breath or on the sound of the wind around them, making use of their auditory sense.
iii.The third technique or module of the DBT is distress tolerance skills.
This module teaches people to calm themselves down in healthy ways when they are distressed or emotionally overwhelmed.
Individuals are allowed to make wise, rational decisions and take immediate action, rather than being captured by emotionally destructive thoughts that might make the situation worse.
Reality acceptance skills are also learnt under this model so that people fully accept reality and later make plans on how to address the problem.
• Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
MBSR is a meditation therapy, used to manage stress or anxiety. It is an 8-week program which includes group sessions.
Mindfulness meditation and Hatha yoga are practiced in these sessions. Lectures and group discussions are also done to talk about mental health and increase interactivity.
In mindfulness meditation the person is told to, for example, focus on the sensations felt while breathing or the rhythm of the chest rising and falling during the process.
This distracts the person’s attention from something stressful to something which is neutral and soothing.
For quick and effective treatment, patients are also given a set of home works, for example 45 minutes of yoga and meditation sessions for 6 days a week and to record their results/feelings in a book or diary for 15 minutes a day.
Whether the cause of Pharmacophobia, or any other type of specific phobia is genetics, environmental or both, the best and the most effective way of treating them is by using a combination of both biological treatments (drugs) with cognitive treatment (for example CBT/exposure therapy).
Titles to read
by Russ Harris, Steven Hayes PhD (foreword), et al.
by Earnie Larsen
- Addiction & Grief: Letting Go of Fear, Anger, and Addiction
by Barb Roger
by Ann Swanson
Frequently Asked Questions
Q1) Why do I have a fear of taking pills?
Maybe because of a past traumatic experience linked to having pills and or a genetic predisposition to develop it.
Q2) How can I get over my fear of taking pills?
Therapies like CBT, exposure therapy and or EMDR are effective ways of treating Pharmacophobia.
Q3) Why is it so hard to swallow pills?
Because many people fear choking, maybe because they’ve experienced it.
Q4) What is Tomophobia?
It is an irrational fear of surgical operations and or medical procedures.
Below is a complete list of all Phobias which we currently cover.
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