what is a phobia


A phobia is an excessive, persistent, and irrational fear of something, and is a type of anxiety disorder. It can be directed toward objects, places, activities, situations, animals, or people.1 We all try to avoid things that make us feel uncomfortable, but people with phobias work hard to avoid what scares them, so much so that it disrupts their daily activities. Symptoms can range from mildly inconvenient (like sweating) to disabling (like avoidance behaviors that make someone miss out on important opportunities).

What Is a Phobia?

A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder that magnifies perceived threats and trigger exaggerated stress responses.
The American Psychiatric Association identifies three major categories of phobias:

  • Social phobia, now called social anxiety disorder, is where people unreasonably fear being humiliated, embarrassed, or judged by others in social situations. Unfamiliar people and groups can be particularly distressing
  • Agoraphobia refers to an intense and debilitating fear of public places and situations where it is difficult to escape or embarrassing to exit. This may include enclosed and/or open spaces. Many people with agoraphobia also have panic symptoms or panic disorder, which involves intense fear plus uncomfortable physical symptoms, such as trembling, heart palpitations, and sweating
  • Specific phobias, known as simple phobias, are the most common type of phobias. These phobias can be of animals (such as dogs and cats), people (such as clowns and healthcare providers), environments (such as dark or high places), and situations (such as flying or taking a train)

Specific Phobias:

  • Acrophobia: Fear of heights
  • Amaxophobia: Fear of driving
  • Androphobia: Fear of men
  • Arachnophobia: Fear of spiders
  • Automatonophobia: Fear of animatronics
  • Chronophobia: Fear of time
  • Cynophobia: Fear of dogs
  • Mysophobia: Fear of germs
  • Pedophobia: Fear of children
  • Phasmophobia: Fear of ghosts
  • Spectrophobia: Fear of mirrors
  • Thalassophobia: Fear of deep water
  • Tocophobia: Fear of childbirth
  • Trypophobia: Fear of repetitive patterns of holes
  • Zoophobia: Fear of animals


Symptoms often overlap across different types of phobias. Commonly experienced psychosocial and physical reactions related to phobias include:

  • Uncontrollable and severe feelings of panic and anxiety: Anxiety-associated physical effects, such as nausea, sweating, blushing, heart palpitations, and trembling. Other physical symptoms include increased heart rate, shortness of breath, a choking feeling, chest pain or discomfort, upset stomach, feeling dizzy or faint, a feeling of losing control or “going crazy” numbness, and chills or hot flashes

  • Intentional avoidance: People with phobias may try to avoid the things that cause them intense fear and anxiety. Depending on the exact phobia, this can look like avoiding everything from meeting new people to going into elevators to avoiding flying on a plane or even leaving the house.

  • Understanding the fear is irrational but unable to control the exposure response: When someone has a phobia, they are aware that their reaction is exaggerated but unable to remedy it without help. Untreated phobias are life-limiting in that they cause significant interference with daily activities and interpersonal relationships 


    The Difference Between Fear and Phobia

Everyone experiences fear, but not everyone has a phobia. The difference exists in the degree of anxiety involved and how long a high level of anxiety persists. For example, it’s normal to feel anxious around your neighbor’s pit bull, but you may have a phobia if you avoid your neighbor for fear of seeing their dog. What people with phobias are afraid of usually poses little to no danger. Also, regular, everyday fears do not require treatment, while phobias can become chronically impairing in the absence of treatment.


Diagnosis of phobias is based on criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) and requires the response to be disproportionate to any actual threat.
Necessary elements of a phobia diagnosis include:
  • Exposure to the phobia almost always triggers an exaggerated stress response
  • The fear, anxiety, or aversion is persistent, typically lasting six or more months
  • It results in avoidance or enduring with extreme distress
  • Everyday functioning is impaired, impacting relationships and opportunities
  • The disturbance is not better explained by the symptoms of another mental disorder, including fear, anxiety, and avoidance of situations associated with panic-like symptoms or other incapacitating symptoms (as in agoraphobia); objects or situations related to obsessions (as in obsessive-compulsive disorder); reminders of traumatic events (as in posttraumatic stress disorder); separation from home or attachment figures (as in separation anxiety disorder); or social situations (as in social anxiety disorder)

A mental health professional may ask about current symptoms and family history, particularly whether other family members have had phobias.1 You may also be asked about any experience or trauma that may have set off the phobia, such as a dog attack leading to a fear of dogs.

When to Seek Help: 

Getting help is an effective way to treat phobias. If you are experiencing new or worsening symptoms of phobias, it is essential that you seek help to reduce its impact on your livelihood and quality of life. If your current treatment plan has stopped working, you should also connect with your healthcare provider.

Remember that your practitioner or mental health professional understands the nature of your phobias and can help you recover.

For more information on ways to get help, visit:

  • Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA)
  • Phobics Anonymous at (760) 322-COPE

Childhood phobias typically present between ages 5 and 9, and go way beyond the typical fears of childhood and can be life-disrupting. They are often short-lived, however, and disappear within a few months.
 While children with phobias can fear the same things as children without phobias, the key difference is that for a phobic child, there is no on-off switch for the fear. It’s ever-present and so extreme that it interferes with their ability to relax, concentrate, and enjoy activities.
In adults, about 80% of new phobias become chronic conditions that do not go away without proper treatment.

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