A phobia can be described as an intense fear—which may be considered irrational—of a particular place, situation, animal, or object. This will typically be avoided by the person experiencing the phobia, and when it must be endured, it generally provokes significant fear and/or anxiety.
Phobias can be treated successfully through many therapeutic approaches. Learn more about phobias below or click here to learn about getting help with a phobia.
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that over 10 million United States adults may experience a phobia. Phobias and phobia disorders can come in a multitude of forms, but they often involve similar parts of the brain. Studies indicate that:
- Specific phobias affect between 7% and 9% of the United States population.
- Twice as many women as men report experiencing a phobia, and women are more likely to experience phobias related to the environment, a situation, or animals.
- Phobias related to blood, injection, or injury are experienced almost equally by all individuals.
- Phobias may occur in higher rates in children with autism (ASD).
- Older people are more likely to have a phobia related to inanimate objects, while younger people may be more likely to have an animal-related phobia.
People who experience one phobia may also be more likely to experience multiple phobias. About 75% of individuals with a phobia fear more than one situation, object, or event.
Fear vs. Phobias
Most people have a particular fear, several particular fears, or experience fear in certain situations that are generally considered to be dangerous. A phobia, however, goes beyond ordinary fear and may often feature an object or situation that is not typically threatening, such as a ringing telephone.
Fear, the emotion often experienced when safety or well-being is threatened, is generally considered to be a rational response to something that is threatening. A person with a phobia may recognize that the thing or situation feared carries little or no threat and is unlikely to cause harm but still be unable to overcome the fear without help. For example, most people will experience fear when encountering a dog that is growling, barking, or foaming at the mouth. But a person who is afraid to approach any dog—even one leashed, behind a fence, or sleeping—and experiences fear at the sound of dogs barking in the distance likely has a phobia of dogs.
Phobias are listed in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) under anxiety disorders. They are not considered to be a form of psychosis, as the person experiencing the phobia typically recognizes the object of the phobia is unlikely to cause harm. Yet people still often cannot help the terror and panic that may result upon exposure.
Symptoms of a phobic reaction may include:
- Dizziness, a faint feeling, or shortness of breath
- Nausea or vomiting
- Trembling, shaking, numbness, or tingling
- Sweating, chills
- Chest pain, shortness of breath, or heart palpitations
- A fear of losing control, dying, or fainting
- A feeling that one is detached from one’s body
A fainting or near-fainting response, heart rate acceleration, and blood pressure elevation typically characterize phobias specifically related to blood, injections, or injuries.
Symptoms can trigger panic attacks when they occur at high intensity, and fear linked to phobic reactions may also lead to the development of anxiety, stress, and depression. Often, the fear of experiencing a phobic reaction will lead individuals to avoid all possibility of encountering the object of the phobia, and this avoidance may have a negative impact on well-being and a person’s ability to function.
Phobias generally first appear in childhood and may also develop after a traumatic experience. In the majority of cases, the phobia develops before age 10. Phobias may wax and wane during childhood and adolescence, according to the DSM, but if they continue into adulthood, they are likely to persist throughout life.
Phobias in Children
Phobias typically first appear in childhood, and most cases of specific phobias develop by age 10. However, because excessive fear—which may involve a variety of objects, situations, places, or people—is common in childhood, a mental health professional will generally take into account the severity of the fear, the degree to which it affects the child’s life, and whether or not the fear is appropriate to the child’s developmental stage. Often, childhood fears may be experienced intensely but fade rapidly or have little to no harmful impact on the child’s daily activity. In this case, a phobia would likely not be diagnosed.
Fear may be expressed in children through tantrums, crying, freezing, neediness, and unexplained pain, such as stomach or head pain. Children may also find it difficult to understand the concept of avoidance, so a mental health professional may rely on information from parents, teachers, and other adults.
It can be frustrating to be afraid of something, especially when it’s difficult to explain why. Talking about phobias with a licensed, empathic therapist may help you learn how to manage and reduce the fear caused by a phobia.
While a phobia may seem to have no apparent cause, addressing the phobia with the help of a mental health professional may reveal a phobia’s roots. Often, a phobia develops following some childhood experience and may sometimes be associated with deeper fears or a traumatic experience.
A part of the brain called the amygdala, which controls many of our emotional responses including the fear response, may also contribute to many phobias. People who are more sensitive to fear could be more likely to develop a phobia. Genetics and upbringing also contribute to how strongly people react to fear, meaning these factors may also influence a person’s likelihood of developing a phobia.
With the help of a mental health professional, it is often possible to overcome or at least significantly reduce the impact of a phobia.
- Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. (5th ed.). (2013). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.
- Fredrikson, M., Annas, P., Fischer, H., & Wik, G. (1996). Gender and age differences in the prevalence of specific fears and phobias. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 1(34), 33-39. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8561762
- Hill, F. (2004). Understanding phobias. London: Mind.
- Lydon, S., Healing, O., O’Callaghan, O., Mulhern, T., & Holloway, J. (2014, December 2). A systematic review of the treatment of fears and phobias among children with autism spectrum disorders. Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 2(2), 141-154. doi: 10.1007/s40489-014-0043-4
- Nordqvist, C. (2014, September 11). What is a phobia? What causes phobia? Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/249347.php
- Understanding childhood fears and anxieties. (2015, August 20). Retrieved from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/emotional-problems/Pages/Understanding-Childhood-Fears-and-Anxieties.aspx
- Warin, C., & Challis, S. (2014). Understanding phobias. London: Mind.
- Winerman, L. (2005). Figuring out phobia. Monitor on Psychology, 7(36), 96. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/julaug05/figuring.aspx