What Is Ambulophobia?

  • Amika Patel MSc. in Mathematical Modelling (Biology and Medicine), University of Exeter,UK

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Introduction

In our daily lives, the practice of monitoring step count has become commonplace. Many of us find satisfaction in reaching our step goals, often achieved through the simple act of walking. For some, this is seamlessly integrated into professions that demand constant movement or, in moments of respite, a leisurely stroll amidst nature's embrace. However, amid these reflections, it's worth acknowledging that the ease of walking isn't universal; there are those for whom this act poses challenges and even evokes feelings of apprehension. The medical term given to those who fear walking is ambulophobia. Let’s further understand what this disorder involves, some of its causes, symptoms and effective treatments.

Understanding ambulophobia

A phobia (derived from the word ‘Phobos’, a Greek term for ‘fear’) is an irrational fear that can emerge regarding different aspects of life, and it is frequently classified as a type of anxiety disorder. Ambul is the Latin term for ‘walk’. Thus, ‘Ambulophobia’ is an anxiety disorder that induces great distress in an individual when it comes to walking. This is a specific phobia as it is marked by fear of a specific situation or object. 

To diagnose a particular phobia, the following criteria must be observed based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V).1

  • Intense dread or unease linked to a particular item or circumstance.
  • The distressing item or situation that prompts the phobia consistently triggers immediate fear or unease. The individual consistently evades the unsettling item or scenario, as any alternative results in considerable fear or discomfort.
  • The intensity of the apprehension or unease surpasses what's reasonable for the actual risk connected to the specific item or situation, as well as the cultural and societal backdrop. 
  • The feelings of anxiety, discomfort, and the inclination to evade are prolonged, often extending for a duration of half a year or more.
  • The anxiety, discomfort, and avoidance contribute to impairment in interpersonal interactions, occupational endeavours, and other critical domains of life.
  • The condition cannot be more logically explained by the existence of symptoms linked to another psychological disorder.

Although ambulophobia might not be as well recognised as more prevalent phobias like arachnophobia (fear of spiders) or claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces), individuals facing this condition can experience significant disruptions in their lives. This can manifest as avoidance of routine tasks due to apprehensions about potential repercussions linked to walking.1 

Causes of ambulophobia

Ambulophobia can result from a combination of genetic factors, traumatic experiences, and classical conditioning, similar to many other phobias. 

In the case of genetic factors, individuals with a family history of anxiety disorders or specific phobias are more prone to developing ambulophobia compared to those without such a history. This inherent susceptibility to developing a mental disorder or specific phobia can be termed a Diathesis-stress relationship. Furthermore, the interplay of genes and neurotransmitters, also known as the chemical messengers of the body, contributes significantly to this hereditary disposition. 

An individual harbouring genetic predisposition will only manifest symptoms of ambulophobia when triggered by an external event provoking anxiety or fear associated with walking. These triggering events can often be traced back to childhood traumatic experiences, wherein injuries sustained during walking or witnessing or hearing about incidents involving walking might have left lasting impressions.1 

Intriguingly, classical conditioning also emerges as a potential contributor to ambulophobia. For instance, if an individual experiences a traumatic event related to walking, their mind might associate walking with fear or anxiety through classical conditioning. This association can become so strong that the act of walking itself triggers those fearful emotions, even in situations without any real danger.2

Additionally, recent research in Poland suggests that ambulophobia can be exacerbated by factors like depression, Parkinson's disease, orthostatic hypotonia, and significant disabilities that affect daily activities. This especially affects the older generation.1 

By understanding these various factors—ranging from genetic predisposition, classical conditioning, external triggers, and other related conditions—we can gain valuable insights into the complex nature of ambulophobia's origins.

Symptoms of ambulophobia

The symptoms of ambulophobia encompass both physical and psychological aspects. 

Physically, those affected might experience: 

  • A rapid heartbeat, 
  • Sweating, 
  • Trembling, 
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Muscle tension
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Hot/cold flashes

When faced with the prospect of walking

These physical manifestations are closely linked to psychological symptoms, which include an intense fear of walking, persistent anxiety, and even panic attacks. The fear can be so consuming that it prevents individuals from engaging in ordinary activities that involve walking, potentially leading to a decrease in their overall quality of life.1

Despite experiencing these symptoms, seeking a diagnosis from a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, remains valuable. These experts employ a thorough assessment to precisely gauge the scope and severity of the phobia.

Treatment options

Several modes of treatment have proven to be effective in aiding individuals facing constant fear of walking. Let’s review a few of these below.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

This is a treatment that is commonly used for patients facing anxiety and depression but is also used to treat other mental and physical health problems like phobias, eating disorders and alcohol misuse issues. The therapy involves talking to a therapist and is designed to assist individuals in handling their challenges by facilitating shifts in both thought patterns and behaviours. 

CBT is established on the idea of recognising the interconnection between thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and actions while understanding how negative sentiments and thoughts can lead to harmful cycles. Therapists actively collaborate with patients to supplant irrational thoughts with more rational alternatives. This process involves assisting patients in scrutinising and justifying their responses to fear triggers, subsequently unearthing the underlying causes and introducing positive substitutes. Unlike certain other therapeutic methods, CBT concentrates on present difficulties rather than delving into past matters. This may come as a disadvantage, though, as it fails to acknowledge potential underlying causes of the condition, like a challenging childhood. 

As part of the therapy, individuals may be encouraged to maintain a thought diary with ABCD columns, whereby: 

  1. A (antecedents) entails identifying the situation or triggering event. 
  2. B (belief) captures the immediate thought upon encountering the trigger. 
  3. C (consequences) outlines the resulting emotions or symptoms. 
  4. D (dispute) involves substituting the irrational belief with rational counterarguments offered by the therapist.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)

This is a meditation therapy that was originally developed by Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 for stress management but is now utilised as an alternative treatment option for various health conditions like phobias, cancer, HIV/AIDS, skin disorders and even diabetes

The program lasts for eight weeks, with sessions lasting around 2.5 hours each week. Additionally, a one-day retreat is included. During these sessions, participants are taught formal mindfulness meditation techniques, which could include simple stretches and postures or even a guide on how to focus on specific sensations, such as the rhythm of their chest moving as they breathe in and out. This helps them learn how to manage their stress and improve their overall well-being.3

Systematic besensitisation

This is another psychotherapy that has been identified as an effective treatment for specific phobias. It is a technique that generally combines a form of relaxation with exposure therapy, and it involves gradually introducing the patient to the fear-inducing trigger, following the 

acquisition of various coping strategies like relaxation methods.4

Drug therapy

Medications taken after a consultation with a doctor's prescription have proven to reduce the phobia’s physical symptoms. However, it’s worth pointing out that this treatment tends to be more successful when the phobia's origin is rooted in genetics.

The treatment of this phobia involves the use of two types of drugs.

  1.  Antidepressant Medications

These drugs, despite their name, are not solely for treating depression; they're also remarkably effective against phobias. For example, medicines like Paxil work to alleviate a person's anxious sensations and induce a sense of calmness. Consistent daily consumption is required, but only under the supervision and recommendation of a medical professional.

  1. Anti-Anxiety Medications

Medications like Klonopin fall under the category of anti-anxiety drugs. They are typically prescribed for individuals experiencing panic attacks. These drugs function by binding to specific receptor cells in the brain that contribute to the emergence of distressing symptoms, effectively lowering anxiety.

The most optimal and efficacious treatment approach involves a combination of biological treatments (medications) and cognitive therapies (such as CBT or exposure therapy). This synergistic approach addresses the multifaceted nature of phobias, offering comprehensive relief.

Summary

Fear is our body’s response to perceived risky situations, prompting protective reactions like "freeze, flight, fight, fright" for safety and support.5 But what about when this fear starts to become irrational? In regards to walking, this can transform into a phobia called ‘Ambulophobia’, challenging the ease of walking for individuals. Factors like genetic predisposition, traumatic experiences and classical conditioning contribute to its development. Effective treatments, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), empower individuals to alter thought patterns and behaviours. Moreover, self-help strategies like gradual exposure and relaxation techniques, along with coping mechanisms such as support groups, provide additional tools for managing ambulophobia.

References:

  1. Górski M, Buczkowska M, Krzywkowska K, Całyniuk B, Górska K, Buczkowski K, et al. Ambulophobia as a Specific Phobia - Defining the Problem Among Patients of Long-term Care Facilities in Poland. Front Public Health [Internet]. 2022 Apr 12 [cited 2023 Aug 25];10:801109. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9035898/
  2.  Garcia R. Neurobiology of fear and specific phobias. Learn Mem [Internet]. 2017 Sep [cited 2023 Aug 25];24(9):462–71. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5580526/
  3. Niazi AK, Niazi SK. Mindfulness-based stress reduction: a non-pharmacological approach for chronic illnesses. N Am J Med Sci [Internet]. 2011 Jan [cited 2023 Aug 25];3(1):20–3. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3336928/
  4. Thng CEW, Lim-Ashworth NSJ, Poh BZQ, Lim CG. Recent developments in the intervention of specific phobia among adults: a rapid review. F1000Res [Internet]. 2020 Mar 19 [cited 2023 Aug 25];9:F1000 Faculty Rev-195. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7096216/

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Amika Patel

MSc. in Mathematical Modelling (Biology and Medicine), University of Exeter

Amika balances her family business commitments in Kenya with a burgeoning portfolio of medical research and data science projects. Her passion for aiding those in need fuels her ambition to make a difference in Africa's healthcare sector. She aspires to contribute to breakthroughs in combating infectious diseases like Malaria, which continues to affect large populations across Africa, while also actively promoting health education in society.

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