What is a Phobia?

Phobias are a relatively common type of anxiety disorder that manifests in an overwhelming and unreasonable fear of objects or situations that, in actuality, pose little real danger. The long-lasting and intense physical and psychological reactions can result in severe avoidance behavior and affect an individual’s ability to function, especially in any type of social setting.  

A person with a phobia has an overpowering compulsion to avoid whatever it is that triggers their anxiety. Phobias are not the same as normal reactions to fearful or threatening situations. For someone to be diagnosed with a phobia, the reaction to the trigger must be so intense that the individual organizes their life around avoiding it.

There are hundreds of phobias; maybe thousands. More are added all the time to keep up with our changing world. Nomophobia is currently being used to describe the fear of being without your mobile phone. Whether that is a true phobia is still being debated. Some of the most recognized and common phobias affecting people in the U.S. include:

  • Claustrophobia – fear of being in confined spaces
  • Aerophobia – fear of flying
  • Arachnophobia – fear of spiders
  • Emetophobia – fear of vomiting
  • Acrophobia – fear of heights
  • Erythrophobia – fear of blushing
  • Hypochondria – fear of getting sick
  • Zoophobia – fear of animals
  • Aquaphobia – fear of water
  • Acrophobia – fear of heights
  • BII phobia (Blood-Injection-Injury) – fear of injuries involving blood
  • Escalaphobia – fear of escalators, especially going down

Individuals struggling with a phobia will usually experience some variation of the following symptoms:

  • a sense of overwhelming anxiety when exposed to a triggering object, event or experience
  • belief that the trigger, or source of fear, must be avoided at all costs
  • inability to function properly when exposed to the source of fear
  • recognition that the fear is irrational, unreasonable and exaggerated, but, at the same time, unable to control the feelings

The term ‘phobia’ is commonly used to refer to a fear associated with one particular trigger but the American Psychiatric Association (APA) recognizes three types of phobia. These are:

  • Specific phobia – intense, irrational fear brought on by a specific trigger.
  • Social phobia – also known as social anxiety, social phobias are an extreme fear of public humiliation, being singled out or judged by others in a social situation. This is far beyond simple shyness.
  • Agoraphobia – often described as a fear of leaving home, agoraphobia actually has the broader definition of being a fear of any situation from which it would be difficult to escape in the event of experiencing panic, like being in an elevator, standing in line, being in a crowd or on a bus or airplane. Feeling there is no way in this type of situation to get away or to get help causes the initial level of anxiety to intensify. The fear can be so overwhelming that, in some cases, the individual may end up unable to leave home at all.

Specific phobias, also described as simple phobias, can be attributed to an identifiable cause, like snakes or spiders. These experiences, while usually more uncomfortable than for those without a similar disorder, usually do not occur often enough to affect day-to-day living in a significant way or require treatment.

Social anxiety and agoraphobia are classified as complex phobias. These types of phobias have triggers that are not nearly as easy to recognize. Because of this, those with complex phobias find it increasingly harder to avoid situations that can trigger their anxiety. Complex phobias can have a negative effect on quality of life and require treatment.

Specific phobias may be the result of a traumatic early experience or caused by witnessing the phobia of a family member. More study will be required to determine the cause of complex phobias but currently, researchers believe they stem from a combination of life experiences, brain chemistry, and genetics. The good news is that phobias are highly treatable. Unlike many other conditions, those who have them are nearly always aware of their disorder, which is a head start with treatment.