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.