What Is a Phobia?

Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment of Phobias

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A phobia is defined as an irrational, intense fear of an object or situation that poses little or no actual danger. At first glance, a phobia may seem similar to a normal fear, but it's is the degree to which a person is affected that determines whether that fear has become a phobia.

Phobia Symptoms

Each person's symptoms are a little bit different. However, at least some of the following symptoms will be present during a phobic reaction:

  • Dizziness, rapid heartbeat, trembling, or other uncontrollable physical response
  • Sensation of terror, dread or panic
  • Preoccupation of thoughts; inability to change focus from the feared situation
  • Intense desire to flee the situation

Types of Phobia

The American Psychiatric Association divides phobias into three major types:

Specific Phobia

A specific phobia is a phobia of a specified object or situation. If the feared object or situation is common, a specific phobia may become life-limiting. Specific phobias can be divided into four major categories (plus an "other" category):

Social Phobia

Social phobia is a strong and pervasive fear of being embarrassed in public.

People with a social phobia are generally reluctant to perform tasks such as eating, signing a check, or even speaking in front of others. Without treatment, a social phobia can become extremely debilitating.


Agoraphobia is the fear of being in a situation that would be difficult or embarrassing to escape, or where help would not be available if a panic attack were to occur.

For many sufferers, agoraphobia develops into a fear of crowds, a fear of being alone, and eventually, a fear of leaving home.

Phobia Diagnosis

A phobia can only be diagnosed by a mental health professional using clinical skills along with the specific criteria that are written in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (4th Ed; DSM-IV). The exact diagnostic criteria vary according to the type of phobia, although many similarities exist.

In order for a phobia to be diagnosed, it must significantly interfere with the sufferer's daily life. For example, a strong fear of snakes may not be a phobia in a city-dweller who has no reason to come in contact with a snake. However, it may represent a severe phobia in a country farmer whose property is home to numerous snakes.

There are many anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder that may cause phobic reactions to certain situations. A mental health professional will make a clear evaluation of a sufferer's experiences to arrive at a correct diagnosis.

Phobia Treatment

The two commonly accepted forms of treatment for phobias are medication and therapy. Many clinicians prefer to try therapy first, adding medications only if needed, although this is not a universal practice.


One of the most accepted forms of therapy for phobias is known as cognitive behavior therapy, or CBT. In this form of therapy, the clinician works with the client to confront the feared situation and change the phobic reaction by changing the automatic thoughts that occur. Exposure therapy is a leading form of cognitive behavior therapy that works well in treating phobias. A popular type of exposure therapy is known as systematic desensitization, in which the client is gradually exposed to the feared object, learning to tolerate increased exposure bit by bit.


Some medications are effective at treating phobias. These include:

  • Anti-depressants
  • Anti-anxiety medications
  • Beta-blockers, which limit the effects of adrenaline on the body

Many people find relief through alternative treatments and relaxation techniques. However, these methods should only be attempted under professional supervision. Many phobias continue to worsen over time, so prompt treatment is always recommended.

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Let's Talk Facts about Mental Health. American Psychiatric Association. February 11, 2008. http://healthyminds.org/factsheets/LTF-Phobias.pdf

American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

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