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Reviewed by Kirsten Davin

Young woman holding hands with a therapist and looking scared

What Is a Phobia?

A phobia is an intense form of fear that is irrational, uncontrollable, and often disruptive to a person’s life. It is provoked by a certain object, situation, event, or activity. Someone who has a phobia may experience extreme dread when faced with the source of their fear and may go to great lengths to avoid it. 

Is Having a Phobia a Form of Mental Illness?

Phobias are a form of anxiety disorder, also called phobic disorders. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) involves extreme, often illogical worry about numerous things. Unlike GAD, the fear involved with a phobia is very specific. 

Types of Phobias

There are many types of phobias, such as fear of snakes (ophidiophobia), fear of small spaces (claustrophobia), and fear of heights (acrophobia). However, in general, phobias can be categorized into three distinct types:

  • Agoraphobia: Agoraphobia, meaning “fear of open spaces,” is characterized by a fear of being unable to escape an unsafe place or situation. People who have agoraphobia may fear and avoid crowds. They may experience anxiety or a panic attack from the use of public transportation or waiting in line. Subsequently, people with agoraphobia tend to stay indoors as much as possible. 
  • Social phobia: Social phobia, also referred to as social anxiety disorder, involves the intense fear of being embarrassed or underperforming in social situations. Those who have a social phobia may fear interacting with servers in restaurants, taking public transportation, or socializing at parties. 
  • Specific phobia: Specific phobias, as noted above, are irrational fears of specific, non-threatening objects or situations.

Common Types of Specific Phobias

The most common types of specific phobias include:

  • Animal phobias: Fear of snakes, insects, dogs, etc.
  • Situational phobias: Fear of small spaces, flying, or bridges
  • Natural environment phobias: Fear of tornadoes, heights, the ocean, or the darkness of night
  • Blood-injection-injury (BII) phobias: Fear of blood (often accompanied by fainting at the sight of blood), the potential for injury, or injections

What Causes Phobias?

Phobias can typically be traced back to early childhood. However, it’s not uncommon for phobias to develop later in life, especially during the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Common causes of phobia include:

  • Childhood trauma: Phobias often develop after a childhood experience that was intensely frightening, traumatic, or stressful. 
  • Stress: Phobias can develop after a stressful first encounter with an object, place, or situation. 
  • Learned behavior from parents: Phobias can transition from parents to children through learned behavior. If a parent shows intense fear of an object or situation, the child may also learn to fear it. 
  • Genetics: Having a close relative with an anxiety disorder can put someone at a greater risk for other anxiety disorders, such as phobias. 

How Do You Know If You Have a Phobia?

Fear vs. Phobia: What’s the Difference?

Fear is a natural emotion that helps to protect a person from danger and is a normal part of the human experience. Phobias, on the other hand, involve fear that is more severe than normal. The fear associated with phobias is excessive and can greatly impair a person’s ability to function.

Phobia Symptoms

The most common symptom of a phobia is a panic attack. Panic attacks occur when an individual is exposed to or anticipates being exposed to a certain object, situation, or place. Signs of a panic attack may include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • A choking sensation
  • Chest pain
  • Trouble speaking or forming thoughts
  • Dry mouth
  • Nausea 
  • Upset stomach
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sweating 
  • A sense of doom
  • An often irrational avoidance of an object, situation, or place

While panic attacks are common in those who have phobias, they don’t need to happen to receive a diagnosis. Another important sign of a phobia includes avoidance of the object, situation, or place. 

Getting a Diagnosis

A therapist can evaluate someone to determine if they may have a phobia or other anxiety disorder, using the diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5). 

Different phobias and anxiety disorders have different diagnostic criteria. Common criteria for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) include:

  • Worry: Excessive worry about a variety of topics and situations, which is often difficult to control
  • Physical and/or cognitive symptoms: Irritability, restlessness, difficulty sleeping, or impaired concentration

Common criteria for phobias include:

  • Avoidance: People who have a phobia often make attempts to avoid the object, situation, or place which causes fear.
  • Anticipatory anxiety: People who have phobias often worry excessively about upcoming events or situations where they may be faced with their fear. 
  • Life-limiting: To be considered a phobia, it must significantly impact or limit the events and activities in a person’s life.

Phobias and other anxiety disorders often occur together. It is important to see a therapist to acquire a formal diagnosis and treatment.

Phobia Treatment Options

Many treatment options are available for phobias. A phobia treatment plan may include one or more of the following therapeutic techniques:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT can help manage fears by changing the way one thinks about the object, situation, or place. With CBT, someone can learn to reshape the negative thoughts they have about their fears to help gain control of their phobias. 
  • Exposure therapy: Exposure therapy for phobias involves exposing someone to their fears in a safe space while practicing relaxation techniques. This can help treat specific phobias as well as other anxiety disorders. 
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR involves processing and accepting past trauma in a controlled environment. When using EMDR to treat phobias, memories of fearful encounters with the object, situation, or place will be safely recalled and processed. 
  • Hypnotherapy: Hypnotherapy involves being placed in a very relaxed and hypnotic state in order to open communication with the subconscious. A hypnotherapist can assist in understanding the root cause of the phobia and aid in adapting one’s response.
  • Biofeedback therapy: Biofeedback therapy is a technique that can improve the mind-body connection. This involves teaching someone who has a phobia to recognize physical signs of fear and stress, such as increased heart rate and muscle tension. By learning to control signs of stress, one can begin to relax the mind and body to better cope with their fears. 
  • Medication: Anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants can help treat phobias by controlling the emotional and physical reactions to irrational fears. 

If a phobia is negatively impacting your life, help is available. A therapist can provide a formal diagnosis, determine which therapy techniques are right for you, and help you gain control of your fears. Find a phobia therapist near you today.

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