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What is a phobia?

A phobia is an intense fear of (or aversion to) a particular object, situation, event, or activity. The fear is often irrational or disruptive and can’t be controlled. You may feel extreme dread about the source of the fear and go to great lengths to avoid it.

Are phobias a form of mental illness?

Phobias, also called “phobic disorders,” are a kind of anxiety disorder. Unlike generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which involves extreme worry about a variety of topics, phobias are focused on specific fears. Common signs of GAD include excessive and hard-to-control anxiety, irritability, restlessness, difficulty sleeping, and trouble concentrating.

Types of phobias

There are many different phobias, including fear of snakes (ophidiophobia), fear of small spaces (claustrophobia), and fear of heights (acrophobia). The “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders” (DSM) recognizes several kinds:

Agoraphobia is intense fear or anxiety related to public spaces and situations, or to places that feel hard to get out of.

People with agoraphobia may become very anxious or have a panic attack from being in crowds, using public transportation, or waiting in line. They may also avoid going out in public alone.

Social phobia, also called social anxiety disorder, is marked by fear and anxiety around social situations. People with social phobia may dread performing in public, socializing at parties, or simply being observed.

Specific phobias are intense, oversize fears of specific objects or situations.

The 5 types of specific phobias

Specific phobias are focused on one particular object or situation. Each specific phobia falls into one of five types:

Animal type phobias involve fear of a particular animal, such as snakes, insects, or dogs.

Situational type phobias concentrate on certain situations or activities, such as flying or driving over bridges.

Natural environment type phobias include fears related to natural features and events such as tornadoes, heights, oceans, or nighttime darkness.

Blood-injection-injury (BII) type phobias involve people being fearful and anxious about seeing blood, receiving an injection, or getting injured.

Other type phobias don’t fit into the first four categories. They include fears such as choking or loud noises.

What causes phobias?

People can develop phobias in early childhood, during adolescence, or later in life. There’s still debate about what exactly causes phobias, but possible causes include:

Trauma: You may develop a phobia after an intensely frightening, stressful, or dangerous experience.

Stress: If you have a stressful first encounter with an object, place, or situation, you may be more likely to have a phobia related to it.

Learned behavior: If someone in your life has intense fear or anxiety related to an object or situation, you may also learn to fear it.

Genetics: Having a family member with generalized anxiety disorder may put you at greater risk of developing anxiety problems yourself.

Phobia symptoms

Fear is a natural emotion that helps protect us from danger. It’s a normal part of the human experience. Phobias, on the other hand, involve fear that’s more extreme than the situation calls for and can affect a person’s ability to function. The following symptoms can help identify a phobia.

Intense fear or anxiety

A common symptom of phobias is intense anxiety, fear, or dread related to a specific event or object.5 Unlike typical fears, phobias are so extreme that they prevent people from participating fully in everyday activities.


When a person has a phobia, their level of fear far outweighs the actual threat. It may cause them to avoid the source of their fear entirely, even if doing so has a negative impact.

Physical reactions

Just the idea of a certain object or event can be enough to make someone with a phobia react physically. They may sweat, have difficulty breathing, or feel tightness in their chest.

Panic attacks

Phobias can sometimes cause panic attacks. Signs of a panic attack include:

  • Sudden, extreme anxiety

  • Rapid heart rate

  • Shortness of breath

  • A choking sensation

  • Chest pain

  • Trouble speaking or forming thoughts

  • Dry mouth

  • Nausea

  • Trembling or shaking

  • Sweating

  • A sense of doom

Panic attacks can be brought on by phobias, but they aren’t always a part of the condition.

Getting a diagnosis

Phobias and other anxiety disorders can have similar symptoms. Working with a therapist is the best way to find out whether you have a phobia or another anxiety disorder, or if a different condition could be the source of the problem.

Treatment options

There are many ways to treat phobias. A treatment plan may include one or more of the following:

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you manage fears by changing the way you think about the object, situation, or place that causes you distress. With CBT, you can learn to reshape the negative thoughts you have about your fears, helping you gain control.

Exposure therapy involves exposing you to your fears in a safe space while practicing relaxation techniques. It can help treat specific phobias as well as other anxiety disorders.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) involves processing and accepting your past trauma in a controlled environment. During EMDR, a therapist can help you safely recall and process memories of negative encounters with the object, situation, or place that’s causing you distress.

Hypnotherapy uses guided relaxation to place you in a state of focused concentration. A hypnotherapist can help you understand the root cause of your phobia and change your response.

Biofeedback therapy can help you improve your mind-body connection. You can learn to recognize and control some of the physical signs of fear and stress, such as heart rate and muscle tension.

Medication for anxiety or depression can also help treat phobias and ease symptoms.

If you think you may have a phobia, a mental health professional can provide a diagnosis, offer guidance on which type of therapy is right for you, and help you gain control of your fears. Find a licensed professional near you

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Last updated: 04/11/2024

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