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Phobias - an overview

5-minute read

Key facts

  • A phobia is an unreasonable fear of something, either social or specific.
  • Social phobias occur in both males and females, and usually start in the teens but can begin in childhood.
  • Common specific phobias can include fear of certain animals, medical procedures or situations.
  • To be diagnosed as a phobia, a person's anxiety must not match the danger posed, and it must cause distress that affects their life.
  • Both social and specific phobias usually respond to treatment.

What is a phobia?

A phobia is an unreasonable fear of something. There are 2 main kinds of phobias. The first is social phobia. The second is a group called specific phobias.

Phobias have 2 main features:

  • An intense fear related to the object or situation, out of proportion to the degree of danger the object or situation actually poses.
  • Active efforts to avoid the object or situation.

What is social phobia?

Social phobia, also known as social anxiety disorder, is a fear of being criticised, embarrassed or humiliated, even in everyday situations.

Social phobia may involve a fear of a specific social situation such as:

  • public speaking or performing in public
  • eating in front of others
  • meeting new people

People with social anxiety might avoid social situations as much as possible. They may attend an event, but they may feel very distressed the whole time.

Adults with this disorder may realise the fear is too strong or that it is unreasonable.

Social anxiety can cause problems at work and in school, as well as in a person's social life.

This disorder occurs in both males and females. It usually starts in the teenage years but can begin in childhood.

What are specific phobias?

Specific phobias are fears caused by a specific object or situation. The fear is very intense and can cause a great deal of anxiety.

Common phobias include fears of:

  • certain animals or insects, often snakes or spiders
  • certain environmental situations such as storms, heights, or water
  • blood, needles or medical procedures
  • certain situations, such as flying, driving, or being on bridges or in tunnels

Why do people develop phobias?

There are several theories about why people develop phobias. Specific phobias often result from having a bad experience. Children may have traumatic experiences seeing other people getting hurt or getting hurt themselves. For example, a child may develop a phobia of dogs after being attacked or seeing someone else get attacked by a dog.

Some specific phobias may run in the family.

Most of the time, people develop phobias about something that does have some potential risk.

How are phobias diagnosed?

Fear of danger is normal and healthy when it matches the actual danger posed by an object or situation.

To be diagnosed as a phobia, a person's anxiety must not match the danger posed by the threat. It also must cause distress that affects their life. For example, the phobia may affect their ability to function at work, school, in public or in social situations.

Doctors and other mental health professionals can diagnose phobias by asking about symptoms, past experiences and general health.

How are phobias treated?

Both social phobia and specific phobias usually respond to treatment.

A common treatment used for specific and social phobias is known as exposure treatment. This involves being gradually exposed to the feared object or situation, with the support of a professional, who will also teach you tools to manage your anxiety or distress.

Other treatments include:

Certain medicines can be helpful for people who are learning how to confront the object of their phobias. Other medicines can also be taken right before being exposed to a situation likely to trigger anxiety.

Specific behavioural therapy techniques are useful. Learning yoga, meditation, and relaxation techniques are all tools that can help control the anxiety people experience when they confront their phobias.

Medicines and psychological therapies can be helpful when used in combination.

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Last reviewed: June 2023

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