Home > Health Library > Phobias
Having a phobia means you are extremely afraid of a specific object,
situation, or activity. Having a phobia about something is very different from
everyday worry or stress. For example, most people feel worry and stress at
some time, such as when speaking in front of a large group of people. People
with phobias have so much fear that it's hard to do normal activities, such as
going to work.
Having a phobia includes feeling stressed about
being near the object, being in the situation, or doing the activity. It also
includes being afraid of the object, situation, or activity itself. People with
phobias avoid what they are afraid of so they won't feel worried and stressed.
There are different types of phobias:
people who have phobias also have another problem such as an
The cause of phobias is unknown. If you have a
family member with a phobia, you are more likely to have a phobia. Sometimes a
person might have a phobia because he or she:
Phobias usually start when a person is a child or a
teenager. Children have more animal phobias, natural environment phobias, and
blood-injection-injury phobias than teenagers or adults. Situational phobias
usually start when a person is an adult. Women often have phobias at a younger
age than men do. If a person has one phobia, he or she is likely to have
another phobia as well.
The main symptom of a phobia is being more afraid than most people of being around an object, being in a situation, or doing an activity. Even just the thought of these things can cause stress in people who have phobias. Children show their
stress by crying, throwing tantrums, freezing, or clinging to someone
Adults with phobias know that the amount of fear and worry
they feel is more than the danger of being hurt by the object, situation, or
activity. Children do not understand this about their phobias.
Many people with phobias are more afraid of being hurt by the object or
situation than they are afraid of the object or situation itself. For example,
a person might be afraid of traveling in an airplane because he or she is
worried that the plane will crash. People with phobias might be worried about
the following things happening when they are around the object or situation
they are afraid of:
The amount of worry or fear a person has depends on how
close they are to the object, situation, or activity they are afraid of. For
example, a person is more afraid of a spider that is on the table in front of
him or her than of a spider that is outside a window. The worry and fear a
person has also depend on how easily the person can get away. For example, a
person might feel more afraid in an elevator when the doors
are shut than when the doors are open.
To find out if you have a
phobia, your doctor will ask questions about your
symptoms, including how long you have had them. Your doctor will also do a
physical exam and ask questions about your medical
history. And he or she will ask questions about medicines you are taking. This information
will help your doctor find out whether or not you have some other
To be diagnosed with a phobia, you will probably have most of
the following symptoms:
cognitive-behavioral therapy. This therapy includes
imagining or actually being close to the object, situation, or activity that
you are afraid of. This is called exposure therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can be
done with one person or in a group.
One type of exposure involves
a series of steps to get closer to the object, situation, or activity. This is
called systematic desensitization. For example, if you have a phobia of
heights, you might first imagine yourself in a high place, such as a balcony on
the 10th floor of a building. Then you would do an exercise to help you relax
until your worry and fear about heights are less. Next, you would try going
onto a balcony on a lower floor and do the exercise to help you relax. Finally,
over time, you might be able to go onto the 10th-floor balcony without being
Sometimes your doctor might prescribe medicine. Medicine
may help with the symptoms of anxiety that you have because of your
phobia. Medicine for phobias is most useful if it is combined with
Unfortunately, many people don't seek treatment for
anxiety disorders. You may not seek treatment because you think the symptoms
are not bad enough or that you can work things out on your own. But getting
treatment is important.
If you need help deciding whether to see
your doctor, see
some reasons why people don't get help and how to overcome them.
Other Works Consulted
Fyer AJ (2009). Anxiety disorders: Genetics. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 1, pp. 1898–1906. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Hollander E, Simeon D (2008). Specific phobias section of Anxiety disorders. The American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Psychiatry, 5th ed., pp. 546–550. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Huppert JC, et al. (2009). Anxiety disorders: Cognitive-behavioral therapy. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 1, pp. 1915–1926. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Iacoviello BM, Mathew SJ (2010). Anxiety disorders. In EG Nabel, ed., ACP Medicine, section 13, chap. 1. Hamilton, ON: BC Decker.
McClure-Tone EB, Pine DS (2009). Clinical features of Anxiety disorders. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 1, pp. 1844–1856. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Reus VI (2015). Mental disorders. In DL Kasper et al., eds., Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th ed., vol. 2, pp. 2708–2723. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.
Shelton RC (2008). Phobic disorders: Specific phobia and social phobia section of Anxiety disorders. In MH Ebert et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment in Psychiatry, 2nd ed., pp. 359–392. New York: McGraw-Hill.
ByHealthwise StaffPrimary Medical ReviewerAdam Husney, MD - Family MedicineE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal MedicineSpecialist Medical ReviewerSteven Locke, MD - Psychiatry
Current as ofJune 17, 2016
Current as of:
June 17, 2016
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Steven Locke, MD - Psychiatry
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
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