What is a Phobia?

Types, Symptoms, and Treatment of this Persistent and Extreme Fear

Child with a dentist phobia
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According to the American Psychiatric Association, a phobia is an irrational and excessive fear of an object or situation. In most cases, the phobia involves a sense of endangerment or a fear of harm. For example, those with agoraphobia fear being trapped in an inescapable place or situation.

Symptoms of Phobias

Phobic symptoms can occur through exposure to the feared object or situation, or sometimes merely through thinking about the feared object.

Typical symptoms associated with phobias include:

  • Dizziness, trembling, and increased heart rate
  • Breathlessness
  • Nausea
  • A sense of unreality
  • Fear of dying
  • Preoccupation with the feared object

In some cases, these symptoms may escalate into a full-scale anxiety attack. As a consequence of these symptoms, some individuals begin to isolate themselves, leading to severe difficulties with functioning in daily life and with maintaining relationships. In some cases, the person may seek out medical care due to a constant concern with imagined illnesses or imminent death.

Types of Phobias

The American Psychiatric Association categorizes phobias into three different types:

  • Social phobias involve a fear of social situations. Such phobias include an extreme and pervasive fear of social situations. In some cases, this fear may center on a very particular type of social situation such as public speaking. In other instances, people may fear to perform any task in front of other people for fear that they will be somehow publicly embarrassed.
  • Agoraphobia involves a fear of being trapped in an inescapable place or situation. As a result, the phobic individual may begin to avoid such situations. In some cases, this fear can become so pervasive and overwhelming that the individual even fears to leave their home.
  • Specific phobias involve the fear of a particular object (such as snakes or butterflies and moths). Such phobias typically fall into one of four different categories: situational, animals, medical, or environmental. A few examples of common fear objects include spiders, dogs, needles, natural disasters, heights, and flying.

    More examples of the four major types of specific phobias include:

    • The natural environment: Fear of lightening, water, storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, or mudslides.
    • Animal: Fear of snakes, rodents, cats, or birds.
    • Medical: Fear of seeing blood or visiting a doctor.
    • Situational: Fear of bridges, leaving home, or driving.

    How Prevalent Are Phobias?

    Phobias are quite common, with social phobia affecting about 7 percent of adult Americans in a given year and specific phobias affecting approximately 9 percent, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In general, women are affected more than men.

    In addition, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, only about 10 percent of reported phobia cases become life-long phobias.

    Treatments for Phobias

    There are a number of treatment approaches for phobias, and the effectiveness of each approach depends on the person and their type of phobia. 

    In exposure treatments, the person is strategically exposed to their feared object in order to help them overcome their fear. One type of exposure treatment is flooding, in which the patient is confronted by the feared object for an extended length of time without the opportunity to escape.

    The goal of this method is to help the individual face their fear and realize that the feared object will not harm them.

    Another method often used in phobia treatment is counter-conditioning. In this method, the person is taught a new response to the feared object. Rather that panic in the face of the feared object or situation, the person learns relaxation techniques to replace anxiety and fear. This new behavior is incompatible with the previous panic response, so the phobic response gradually diminishes. Counter-conditioning is often used with people who are unable to handle exposure treatments.

    Finally, for people with social phobia, medication like a low dose of a benzodiazepine or potentially an antidepressant (like a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI) in combination with cognitive-behavioral therapy can be very helpful. 

    A Word From Verywell

    If you think you may have a phobia, please seek out treatment from a licensed therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. You deserve to develop control of this fear, and you can with proper therapy. 

    Sources:

    American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing. 

    Mental Health, N. (2016). Facts About Phobias. Psych Central

    National Institute of Mental Health: The Numbers Count: Mental Disorders in America (2013).

    Richard T.A. Social Anxiety Association: Social Anxiety Fact Sheet: What is Social Anxiety Disorder? 

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