People with specific phobias experience intense, irrational fears of certain things or situations. These phobias might include dogs, closed-in places, heights, escalators, tunnels, highway driving, water, flying, and injuries involving blood.
Phobias are excessive and unreasonable fears in the presence of or in anticipation of a specific object, place, or situation. A person with a specific phobia may be able to ski the world’s tallest mountains with ease but panic going above the 10th floor of an office building. Adults with phobias will avoid common places, situations, or objects even though they know there’s no threat or danger. They realize their fears are irrational, but often facing, or even thinking about facing, the feared object or situation brings on a panic attack or severe anxiety.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that around 5-12 percent of Americans have phobias. Specific phobias affect an estimated 6.3 million adult Americans. There is no known cause, though they can be connected to a traumatic event or a learned behavior. They may have a tendency to run in families, often first appearing in adolescence or adulthood, and are more common in women. Phobias tend to start suddenly and are more persistent than childhood phobias; only about 20 percent of adult phobias vanish on their own.
When children have specific phobias — for example, a fear of animals — those fears usually disappear over time, though they may continue into adulthood. No one knows why they hang on in some people and disappear in others.
People with phobias may not feel the need to seek treatment if the source of their fear can be easily avoided. Sometimes, though, they may make important career or personal decisions to avoid a phobic situation.
When phobias interfere with a person’s life, treatment can help. Successful treatment usually involves a kind of cognitive-behavioral therapy called desensitization or exposure therapy, in which patients are gradually exposed to what frightens them until the fear begins to fade. Three-fourths of patients benefit significantly from this type of treatment. Medication is also used for situational phobias; in particular, benzodiazepines may be prescribed on an as-needed basis. Relaxation and breathing exercises also help reduce anxiety symptoms.
Most people with specific phobias can be effectively treated with medication, therapy, or a combination of both.