A specific phobia is an intense fear about an object or situation. Phobias involve symptoms of both anxiety and avoidance.
Phobias aren’t just extreme fears — they’re irrational fears. This means that the anxious feelings are larger than the true danger that the object or situation poses.
For example, if you fear heights, you might feel extreme anxiety or panic if you go above the 10th floor of an office building. This would be an irrational fear, as the building would have multiple security measures in place to keep you safe.
Specific phobias are widespread. In fact, they’re one of the most common anxiety disorders in the United States, affecting an estimated 19 million adults, or 8.7 percent of the population.
This article looks at the symptoms of specific phobias, the most common types, and other phobia-related conditions.
If you have a specific phobia, you probably realize that your fears are irrational. However, facing or even thinking about facing the object or situation can bring on a panic attack or intense anxiety.
The symptoms of specific phobias usually first appear in adolescence or adulthood, with an average onset of 7 years old. Children’s fears often disappear by themselves, but in some, they persist into adulthood.
According to the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the symptoms associated with specific phobias — fear, anxiety, and avoidance — persist for
Your symptoms may range from mild to severe. How often they arise depends partly on how often you encounter the feared object or situation. Even if encounters are rare, the anticipation of this event can provoke an anxious response.
As with other anxiety disorders, the symptoms of specific phobias can be both physical and psychological.
In people with a phobia, seeing or thinking about a feared object or situation activates the body’s defense system, known as the fight-or-flight response.
This is a natural response in humans and animals. It aims to prepare the body for danger. This response gets triggered when the body thinks it detects a threat.
Common physical symptoms related to specific phobias include:
- heart palpitations
- chills or hot flushes
- shortness of breath or feeling smothered
- chest pain or discomfort
- feeling nauseated
- feeling lightheaded
Children may express their anxiety differently than adults with behaviors that include:
- freezing, or becoming very still despite feeling very anxious on the inside
- clinging to a caregiver
Psychological symptoms of specific phobias include:
- a feeling of imminent danger or doom
- feeling the need to escape
- intense discomfort
- a fear of losing control
- a sense of things being unreal, known as depersonalization
Some people often avoid situations or places where they may encounter their fear.
Phobias can significantly impact your work, social, and home lives, and your relationships.
For example, a phobia may prevent you from visiting parks because of a fear of dogs, or you might turn down a promotion because the new position involves train or plane travel.
The avoidance and anxious anticipation of the feared situation can lead to significant distress about having the phobia in the first place.
It can even lead to shame and guilt, especially if you find that others don’t understand your feelings.
Anxiety disorders, which include specific phobias, are very common. In fact, the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that almost one-third of adults in the United States will experience an anxiety disorder during their lifetimes.
Some specific phobias are more common than others. Women are twice as likely to have specific phobias as men.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) and the NIMH, common specific phobias include a fear of:
- animals, such as spiders, snakes, dogs, or insects
- receiving injections
- public transport
- dental or medical procedures
It’s common for people to have multiple specific phobias. According to the DSM-5, around 75 percent of those with specific phobia fear more than one situation or object, with an average of three fears.
Not all phobias are specific phobias. The NIMH describes the following conditions as phobia-related disorders:
- Social anxiety disorder, previously known as social phobia, is an intense fear of social situations or performance situations.
- Agoraphobia is a fear of being in a situation where you might find it difficult to escape. This might include open spaces, enclosed spaces, or public transport.
- Separation anxiety disorder involves intense anxiety about being separated from a major attachment figure in your life.
Having a specific phobia can predict the development of other anxiety, mood, or substance use disorders. That said, specific phobias are treatable, and early treatment may reduce the risk of other mental health conditions.
The good news is that phobias are highly treatable using relaxation methods and behavioral therapies.
Though we can’t always stop our anxiety from making an appearance, we can take steps to notice our symptoms and regain control when they arise.
Many people find that talking with a therapist can help. You can do this in whatever way works best for you, whether that’s in person, on the phone, or using video chat.