Fear and anxiety can appear in almost any situation, but they’re often highly treatable.
If you have strong anxiety and feelings of panic around certain objects or situations, it could be caused by a phobia.
Feeling fearful or anxious can be normal and even helpful. But when the fear is overwhelming and disproportionate to the actual threat, we move into the territory of phobias.
Tens of millions of people in the United States live with phobias every year. But even though phobias rank among the most common anxiety disorders,
The word “phobia” comes from the Greek word phobos, meaning fear or horror. But having a diagnosable phobia is more than just being fearful.
Fears of specific objects or situations are widespread. More than
- an emotional response to a real or perceived threat
- experienced by everyone at some point
- part of how we protect ourselves
- both emotional and physical
Phobia, unlike fear, is defined by:
- intense and excessive anxiety about a feared object or situation
- feeling as if fear of the object or situation is holding you back
- avoiding the feared object or situation
Though plenty of people would be startled or even shriek at the sight of a snake slithering across their foot, not everyone would feel this fear holds them back or impairs them.
Someone with a true phobia of snakes would feel intense anxiety when snakes might be present or avoid the situation altogether.
If you have a phobia, you could experience physical symptoms like:
- rapid heartbeat
- shortness of breath
Phobias are the most common types of anxiety disorders in the United States.
The estimated prevalence of specific phobia in the United States varies by study. But generally, between
About 1.3% of U.S. adults experience agoraphobia.
Phobias typically develop during childhood or the teen years, though this isn’t always the case. Older adults could develop phobias as a result of specific experiences or medical conditions.
Women are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with a specific phobia. Though the data is less consistent,
Women tend to show more intense signs of phobia and are more likely to have multiple types of anxiety disorders. But men with phobias are more likely to experience problems with substance use than women.
Curiously, rates of phobias are
Phobias are generally broken down into three diagnoses:
About 19 million adults in the United States live with a specific phobia, making it the most common phobia diagnosis.
If you have a specific phobia, you may have strong feelings of anxiety or panic to a specific stimulus. These feelings can make it difficult (and sometimes impossible) to function as usual.
A total of 21.9% of adults with specific phobia experiences serious impairment. This means the phobia has a bigger impact on the way they live day-to-day.
Avoiding the stimulus reduces symptoms of distress for many people with the phobia, but the condition is unlikely to go away over time without any treatment.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), specific phobias are typically broken down into five subcategories:
- Blood, injection, and injury. Includes fear of needles, blood, or wounds.
- Natural environment. Includes fear of heights, natural disasters, the dark, or water.
- Animals. Includes fear of dogs, cats, snakes, spiders, birds, sharks, and other animals.
- Situational. Includes fear of being in an enclosed space, flying, or using public transportation.
- Other. Includes fear of objects or situations that don’t fit in any of the other categories.
Most people with specific phobia fear more than one object or situation.
Some common — and less common — phobias include:
- achluophobia: fear of darkness
- acrophobia: fear of heights
- aerophobia: fear of flying
- aquaphobia: fear of water
- belonephobia: fear of needles
- claustrophobia: fear of enclosed spaces
- coulrophobia: fear of clowns
- cynophobia: fear of dogs
- dentophobia: fear of dentists
- enochlophobia: fear of crowds
- heliophobia: fear of the sun
- hemophobia: fear of blood
- musophobia: fear of mice
- mysophobia: fear of germs and contamination
- nyctophobia: fear of the dark
- ophidiophobia: fear of snakes
- pyrophobia: fear of fire
- trypophobia: fear of holes
Your level of distress may change depending on how long you’re exposed to the stimulus and how close you are to it.
Social anxiety disorder
If you have social anxiety disorder, social situations can cause intense anxiety. You may fear being judged negatively by the people around you, or worry about blushing, sweating, or stumbling over words.
Social anxiety disorder can impact functioning in your workplace, school, or social events. Concern over breaking social norms, offending others, or coming across in a negative light can cause many people with social anxiety disorder to avoid these situations altogether.
Even doing everyday activities, like eating or drinking in front of people, talking to a cashier, or using a public restroom can cause intense anxiety if you have social anxiety.
Closely related to specific phobia, agoraphobia is the sometimes overwhelming fear of situations and places that may be difficult to escape.
If you have agoraphobia, you’re likely to avoid any settings that bring on these feelings of panic, such as being outside of the house alone or being in a crowd.
In some cases, this condition can make it harder to leave home, which could impact day-to-day life for some people.
Phobias are usually diagnosed by a psychologist or other mental health professional. Even though phobias are a common anxiety disorder, many people don’t get a formal diagnosis.
According to the DSM-5, a specific phobia diagnosis requires:
- fear and anxiety in the presence of a particular situation or object
- fear and anxiety nearly every time you’re in contact with the situation or object
- avoiding the object or situation if possible, or strong anxiety if you can’t
- fear or anxiety that’s disproportionate to the actual danger
- at least 6 months of symptoms
- the situation or object causes you distress and makes day-to-day life harder to manage
Children often have temporary fears that don’t cause much impairment. In these cases, specific phobia shouldn’t be diagnosed.
If you have any of these symptoms or think you may have a phobia, reaching out to your doctor is a good first step. They may refer you to a mental health specialist.
Like many other anxiety disorders, the exact cause of phobias aren’t well known. Still, scientists believe potential causes of phobias are:
- Temperamental. The tendency to feel uncomfortable emotions, being withdrawn, and a fear of being seen negatively are connected to the development of phobias.
- Environmental. Bad or traumatic experiences with the feared object often happen before a phobia comes up. For example, getting stuck in a tight space could cause claustrophobia.
- Genetic. Phobias often run in families. Some types, like animal and situational phobias, are about
30%heritable. Brain structures and connectivity could also contribute to phobias.
Other risk factors for developing phobias include:
- parental loss or separation
- physical or sexual abuse
- having another mental health condition
- substance use
- experiencing or witnessing traumatic events
In adults, phobias tend to coexist with medical conditions such as:
- coronary heart disease
- immune disorders
- thyroid diseases
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
Phobias are also strong predictors of other mental health disorders and substance use.
People with a specific phobia are significantly more likely to attempt suicide than those without the diagnosis. But co-occurring anxiety and mood disorders could also contribute.
Overcoming your phobia is possible. Many methods can reduce or eliminate the symptoms of phobias. Some common treatments include:
- Systematic desensitization treatment. This involves using mental imagery and anxiety managing techniques to move from least to most feared stimuli. This can be done with the stimulus actually present, on a computer, or through
- Therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) includes both exposure to the feared stimuli and building up more constructive ways of thinking.
- Medications. Though no medication can entirely remove a phobia, beta-blockers, benzodiazepines, antidepressants, or
D-cycloserinemay be helpful in reducing anxiety and other symptoms.
Children and teens are more likely to overcome their phobias. In adults, about 80% of new phobias become chronic. It’s still possible, though, to recover from phobias as an adult, especially if you find a treatment that helps.
If you or someone you know is living with a phobia that’s getting in the way of daily life, the first step is often reaching out to a doctor.
Getting the right treatment for you can help reduce your symptoms and the dread and anxiety you may feel.
Want to get a better idea of whether you have a specific phobia? You can check out this article to learn more about symptoms of specific phobias.
You can also connect with people who have similar experiences in online support groups for people with anxiety disorders including specific phobias.