Phobias are persistent, irrational fears of certain objects or situations that pose little or no danger. Phobias occur in several forms; the fear associated with a phobia can focus on a particular object (specific phobia) or be a fear of embarrassment in a public setting (social phobia). Some other examples of phobias involve spiders, tunnels, heights, highway driving, water, flying, and blood.

People who have phobias often are so overwhelmed by their anxiety that they avoid these situations altogether. If they are unable to avoid such situations, they may experience trembling, panic and fear, rapid heartbeat, a strong desire to get away, and shortness of breath.

If a person has to speak in public, for example, they might experience a rapid heartbeat and sweaty palms. Most people experience certain fears with mild to moderate intensity, and the fear passes. For people with a phobia, the fear is extremely intrusive and can disrupt normal life, interfering with work or social relationships in varying degrees of severity. Anxiety disorders are not just a case of “nerves.” You can’t overcome an anxiety disorder just through willpower, nor can the symptoms be ignored or wished away.

Fortunately, there are effective treatments to help people with phobias.

How Common Are Phobias?

Approximately 10 percent of people in the U.S. experience phobias, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). In fact, phobias are the most common mental disorder in the U.S. and more women are affected than men. Social phobia generally appears for the first time in adolescence, around age 13 years old. Approximately 15 million American adults, or 6.8 percent of the adult population, are affected and 5.5 percent of the teenage population.

What Causes Phobias?

Traumatic events or stressful experiences can trigger the development of specific phobias. Children can also “learn” a phobia from a parent or household member. In fact, most phobias, begin during early childhood — it is unusual for a phobia to start after the age of 30 years.

What Treatments Are Available for Phobias?

Social phobia is highly treatable. There is no single treatment that works for every person; treatment needs to be tailored to the individual for it to be effective. There is no proven drug treatment for specific phobias, but certain medications may help reduce symptoms of anxiety before one faces a fear-inducing situation. Some medications used to treat phobias include beta blockers, antidepressants, including serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are commonly prescribed for people with phobias. If an SSRI is not effective, a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) may be prescribed. Also, tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), such as clomipramine, or Anafranil, have been found to relieve phobia symptoms. Benzodiazepines are an example of a tranquilizer that might be prescribed for a phobia, to help reduce anxiety symptoms.

Several types of therapy can also be effective, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Exposure Therapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) teaches the phobic person to discover different ways of understanding and reacting to the phobia and teaches the person to control their feelings and thoughts surrounding the phobia. Exposure therapy introduces gradual exposure to the phobia over a series of steps, in order to gain control over the phobia, under the guidance of their therapist.

Can People with Phobias Also Have Other Physical and Emotional Illnesses?

People with phobias, particularly social phobia, may also experience issues with addiction and substance abuse.

Many people with social or a specific phobia become so anxious that they experience panic attacks, which are intense and unexpected bursts of terror accompanied by physical symptoms. As more situational panic attacks occur, people with phobias may take extreme measures to avoid situations where they fear another attack might happen or where help would not be immediately available. This avoidance, similar to that in many panic disorder patients, may eventually develop into agoraphobia, an inability to go beyond known and safe surroundings because of intense fear and anxiety.

Diagnosis and treatment of other disorders are critical to finding effective treatment of phobias.