Conditions

What Is a Phobia? Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

Phobia-related disorders create intense experiences of fear that are disproportionate to the danger level. People with phobias may worry excessively about avoiding triggering things, people, or environments. Let’s explore what they are and the different types.

therapist sean abraham By Sean Abraham, LCSW

Updated on May 12, 2024

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Many of us have immediate associations with the word phobia. We may imagine someone trembling at the idea of heights, spiders, or snakes, to name a few common examples. The term may also make us think of the childhood fear of darkness or our adult fear of public speaking. Phobias, however, are more than fear. Many types of phobias have varied causes, and they can become debilitating. 

So, what exactly is a phobia? Are phobias a type of anxiety disorder? Are there relaxation techniques or any other effective treatment for phobias? Can a mental health professional help? We’re here to answer these questions.

Understanding Phobias 

If you have a phobia, you may feel alone in your experience, but you are not. Phobic disorders are actually surprisingly common. Around 12.5% of American adults struggle with a specific phobia within their lifetime. Understanding the list of phobias and their different forms is beneficial when pursuing a resolution.

What Are Phobias? 

So, what exactly defines a true phobia? First, phobias are not the same as fears. While we all experience fear, phobias are relentless, illogical, extreme, and impair a person’s ability to function. A phobia is an anxiety disorder marked by an unrealistic and persistent terror associated with an object, person, animal, situation, or activity

While a healthy sense of fear can ensure we get to work on time or cross the street cautiously, a phobia can limit us from navigating normal and healthy everyday experiences. People with phobias experience high levels of distress and go to great lengths to avoid exposure to the object of their phobic fears and any related triggers. Their phobia may impact the jobs they choose, where they live, who they spend time with, their hobbies, habits, health, and home.

Childhood phobias generally occur between the ages of 5 and 9 but can often resolve quickly. Lifelong or chronic adult phobias typically begin later in life and, after onset, are unlikely to resolve without professional medical treatment. Adult phobias are connected with an increased risk of other health issues, such as co-occurring health diagnoses and substance use disorders.

Mental health experts have classified phobias into three types:

It may be tempting to self-diagnose if you think you have a diagnosable phobia. You may be searching for answers and trying to understand your feelings and behaviors. This is understandable. It may be wise, however, to contact a medical or mental health professional to help you gather more information. A licensed professional has been trained to help you explore the different types of anxiety disorders.

Common Phobia Causes 

The biological causes of phobias are still unclear and may vary from person to person. However, some common causes may include negative or traumatic experiences, genetic predisposition, environment, or changes in brain function. 

Deborah Harland, MSW, LCSW, is a licensed Grow Therapy provider who is trained in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma-informed cognitive behavioral therapy. She has experience in treating trauma, anxiety disorders, and phobias. Harland believes that phobias are often rooted in trauma:

“In my experience, phobias are often initially created from an underlying fear in the subconscious that can result from past trauma or other distressing negative beliefs that are stuck in an emotional alert response that has been cut off from the logical, rational brain,” she explains. “Depending on how deeply ingrained the fear reaction is, logical reasoning may or may not be able to suffice to change the emotional flooding.” 

Certain risk factors are associated with phobias, such as traumatic experiences. Other risk factors include:

Differences Between Fears and Phobias

When discussing phobias, we should be clear that a phobia is not just a fear. The human body and brain experience a neurobiological fear response when a potential danger triggers a sense of safety threat. This is a normal and healthy, and even helpful survival mechanism. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol allow us to fight or flee to keep us and our loved ones safe. This mammalian nervous system response has worked for us for centuries. 

With a phobia, however, the stress response is triggered so that irrational fear outweighs the actual reality of a threat. The stress response becomes hyperreactive. The result is often disabling. Fear can be useful, but phobias can cause needless distress and suffering.

Therapy for phobias

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Symptoms of Phobias

So, what are some of the common symptoms of phobias? Symptoms of phobia disorders can be highly uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful. Patients report experiencing extreme fear or panic, sometimes from simply thinking about what they are afraid of. If left untreated, these symptoms can create emotional and mental anguish. They can limit individuals from activities that bring them joy or allow them personal, educational, and professional growth. 

Symptoms of phobia may include:

If you find yourself Googling your symptoms in an attempt to diagnose yourself, it might be time to find a therapist. A licensed mental health care professional can differentiate between symptoms of phobia and those of other diagnoses. “In general, since a phobia is an irrational extreme fear … there are many variations of triggers that are connected to past trauma that I do not specifically list as phobias due to PTSD being a more accurate diagnosis but can be similar in treatment,” states Harland.

Types of Phobias

Phobia-related disorders create intense experiences of fear that are disproportionate to the danger level. People with phobias may worry excessively about avoiding triggering things, people, or environments. They may go to great lengths to avoid the extreme feelings of terror or panic associated with their phobia. Sometimes, this can eventually even lead to the person becoming completely housebound. 

Specific Phobias

Specific (isolated) phobias include fears around the natural environment, animals, blood, injection or injuries, or specific situations. Whatever the specific type, phobias often cause significant physical or mental distress and limit a person’s impairment or functioning. 

Some familiar images may come to mind when you think about specific phobias. We have all seen movies or television shows where a character struggles with something like an excessive fear of the dentist (dentophobia) or a fear of needles (trypanophobia).

Some other examples of common phobias are phobic fear of dogs (cynophobia), closed spaces (claustrophobia), bridges (gephyrophobia), water (aquaphobia), or storms (astraphobia). As with all phobias, the individual experiencing the phobia will experience immediate fear if they have any contact with the object or situation. They will likely experience increased heart rate and do almost anything to avoid the phobia.

Specific phobias aren’t the only classification of phobic fear. Some phobias are limited to an object, animal, setting, or fear. For other individuals, phobias can take on a more significant social meaning. 

Social Phobias

Certain phobias can be classified as social phobias or social anxiety disorders. A social anxiety disorder is marked by a constant fear of being judged and an escalation of fear in social situations. Social anxiety can keep people from spending time with loved ones, celebrating milestones, or working. The experience can be extremely painful because even if someone knows their fears are unfounded, they often feel impotent to behave differently. Symptoms of social anxiety may include:  

Agoraphobia is another type of phobia. This condition can involve panic attacks and an inability to cope in public places. Agoraphobia can be disabling and can often decrease someone’s quality of life. Some people even become unable to leave their homes at all. Others may lose jobs or relationships because of the nature of their phobia. Agoraphobia can make relationships and social connections difficult to maintain. People with agoraphobia experience two or more of the following extreme fears:

Agoraphobia can be a scary and isolating experience. Explaining your symptoms and feelings to family and friends may be hard. Don’t be afraid to talk to your primary care doctor or therapist if these symptoms sound familiar. Change can feel impossible if you are experiencing agoraphobia, but there are tools that can help if you reach out to a professional who is qualified in the treatment of anxiety disorders and phobias. 

Treatment for Phobias

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is a therapeutic tool used to rewire the brain so anxiety patients can create new behavioral patterns. Thoughts and behaviors are explored, documented, and carefully altered. An experienced practitioner can guide you in the CBT process. 

Exposure therapy is a specific type of CBT that is sometimes used to treat phobias. Clients are supported in learning to slowly face the root causes of their phobias to create new relationships with their thoughts. Controlled, gradual exposure to triggering stimuli allows patients to change phobic responses gradually.

EMDR

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is another treatment method for phobias. Though this primarily relates to treating PTSD, some phobias can have their basis within trauma, so EMDR may be helpful.

Relaxation Techniques

Mindfulness-based stress reduction tools and stress-reducing lifestyle changes are commonly adopted to address phobias-related anxiety levels. This may include visualization, imagery, meditation, breathing techniques, or yoga. 

Medications

Pharmaceuticals like propranolol (a beta blocker) and glucocorticoids may benefit phobia patients in conjunction with psychotherapy. Benzodiazepines are sometimes also prescribed to treat the panic attacks that accompany phobias. These drugs may decrease hyperarousal and panic symptoms, however it’s worth noting they are known to be highly addictive. 

Taking Steps Toward Managing Phobias 

With support, you can learn to utilize self-help and coping tools to manage phobia symptoms effectively. This can take some time, but a qualified therapist can help you in exploring the different types of anxiety and how to cope with your triggers when they come up. 

Evidence-based tools like mindfulness-based stress reduction, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), grounding techniques, and general self-care habits can go a long way. With the help of a licensed professional, you may find that you can finally develop an empowering self-help strategy.

“Evaluating with the help of a trusted provider or support person the level of actual danger present in the triggering event/object/person is a good first step as some phobias do have a measure of real danger while others are minimal risk to challenge,” explains Harland. 

“Understanding how the comfort zone and nervous system operate is critical in choosing how far to challenge a fear without it becoming panic and setting back progress. Practicing methods to calm the body physically can aid in countering the nervous system’s reaction. Gathering a supportive network to reach out to is also important.”

Tips for Managing Phobias in Daily Life

Stress reduction is an important part of managing phobias and anxiety disorders. Many of us didn’t grow up with models for stress reduction or healthy habits, so learning the practical skills of self-care requires support. The good news is that there are several ways that we can manage stress effectively once we learn these skills. 

The National Institute of Mental Health encourages Americans to practice self-care tools daily to manage mental health. Taking time to be intentional about doing things that benefit our health can take some practice. Still, the benefits can change the quality of our lives. Additionally, taking steps toward managing phobias includes regular exercise, healthy eating, hydration, good sleep hygiene, relaxing leisure activities, practicing gratitude, and utilizing a social support system. 

Help is Available

Phobias are much more than just fears. They can keep you from living the life you want to. They can limit you from exploring relationships, procuring an education, traveling, doing new activities, and finding meaningful work. If you fear you are experiencing a phobia, you may be tempted to do a deep internet dive to find answers. Remember that you do not have to navigate this alone. Professional help is available. 

It may seem scary, or you may be unsure if insurance will cover therapy, but it may be wise to explore your options. Look for a provider who has experience with phobias and other anxiety disorders. Reaching out to a licensed mental health professional via a platform like Grow Therapy might be the first step toward restoring hope and wholeness in your life. Evidence-based tools and skills learned in talk therapy have changed the lives of many people with phobias – for the better. It may take some work, but change is possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
therapist sean abraham Sean Abraham, LCSW

Sean Abraham is a licensed clinical social worker who works with those who have struggled with substance use, depression, anxiety, loss, communication problems, student life, as well as other mental health concerns.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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