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Phobias: What, How, & Why

Updated on October 8, 2016

A phobia is an intense fear of something which, in reality, poses little or no actual danger to a person.

There is, though, a difference between ordinary fear and a phobia. It becomes a phobia if the fear is so severe that it causes tremendous anxiety and interferes with your normal life.

For instance, feeling anxious during in-flight turbulence is a fear, but avoiding going to your friend’s wedding because you’d have to fly overseas is a phobia.

According to Glenn Mason, a Manchester-based cognitive behavioural psychotherapist, there are over 400 different phobias recognised by psychologists worldwide.

There are three main categories of phobias:

  1. Specific phobia is a fear of a particular object or situation such as a fear of heights (acrophobia), injections (trypanophobia), and going to the dentist (dentophobia).
  2. Agoraphobia is a fear of going out in public, a fear of open spaces or crowds.
  3. Social Phobia is a fear of social situations.

What causes phobias?

Mason says, “In considering this question it often brings to our attention the nature-nurture debate (which is one of the oldest issues in psychology, with scientists debating whether it is genetic inheritance or the environmental factors, which contribute more significantly to human development). For example, if a parent has a fear of dogs it would not be uncommon for this fear to be passed on to the children within the family.

“Some researchers would argue that this is due to genetics, but others would believe that it’s simply due to learned behaviour from the family member who has that fear. No matter what side of the debate you find yourself leaning towards, the phobia can often be traced back to development from an early childhood experience in our formative years as children”

Common phobias:

A few common phobias include:

  • Arachnophobia- The fear of spiders
  • Ophidiophobia- the fear of snakes
  • Acrophobia- The fear of heights
  • Claustrophobia- the fear of confined spaces
  • Trypanophobia- The fear of injections
  • Social Phobias (which also includes stage fright)

Symptoms of a phobia:

Severe phobias usually result in panic attacks, which are characterised by shortness of breath, dizziness, pounding heart, confusion, dry mouth, elevated blood pressure, nausea and trembling.

Other symptoms of a phobia include overwhelming anxiety or panic, feeling an intense need to escape, fear of going crazy, powerlessness over the fear.


Have you ever had a phobia? What was it?

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When do phobias become problematic?

Although phobias are common, they don’t always cause considerable distress or disrupt your day-to-day life.

Glenn Mason says, “When considering phobias, it is important to look at this on an individual basis. How it affects one may be different from how it affects another. For example, someone with a phobia of flying (aerophobia) may not experience this fear on a daily basis. It is more likely that anxiety will increase as a family holiday draws close, or when talking about aeroplanes, or on seeing them fly by. Someone with a bird phobia (ornithphobia) is more likely to experience this fear on a daily basis.”

Consider seeking help for your phobia if it causes disabling fear, anxiety or fear; if you have to go out of your way or change your routine to avoid the phobic stimulus (for example, if you have to drive ten kilometres around a high bridge owing to your fear of heights).

Effects of a phobia

Phobias can have a huge impact on your quality of life, and have adverse effects in the long run, if left untreated. These limitations can have a devastating effect on your mind. You might feel isolated, turn into a recluse, or even get depressed. Here are a few of its effects:

  1. Embarrassing- Phobias can cause embarrassing situations. For instance, how do you explain to your spouse that you can’t go on a honeymoon to Paris because of your fear of planes? How do you explain to a potential employer that you can’t accept their job offer because you’d have to travel in an elevator to get up to your office on the twelfth floor?
  2. It can make you feel out of control- One of the most serious emotional effects of a phobia is that it leaves you feeling out of control of your own emotions. You understand the fact that your fear is irrational, yet no matter how hard you try, you can’t control it.
  3. It is life-limiting- For a fear to be diagnosed as a phobia, it must be life-limiting in nature. For instance, depending on what the phobia is, you might find yourself struggling to run daily errands, do household chores, meet with friends, or get to work.
  4. It can make you feel helpless- When you realise that your phobia is out of control, you might start to feel helpless. You may feel that nothing you do will ever cure it. You may feel that it’ll stay with you forever.

Don't let your fears control you. A phobia can be cured; a mindset cannot
Don't let your fears control you. A phobia can be cured; a mindset cannot

Treatment of phobias


Medication is not generally preferred as a method of treatment, because talking therapies are so much more effective. Besides, medication will only help mask your symptoms, not cure your phobia. However, in severe cases, medication might be necessary to reduce symptoms intense enough to prevent you from functioning in day-to-day life. In such a case, anti-depressants, sedatives and beta-blockers may be prescribed, as they are the most commonly used medicines for suppressing phobic symptoms.

However, such medicines may have harmful side effects, so it might be a good idea to ask your therapist beforehand if the medicine being prescribed to you has any adverse side-effects.

Talking treatments-

Talking treatments, such as counselling and psychotherapy are very often effective methods for treating phobias.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been found to be very effective in treating phobias.

Cognitive psychologists believe that we must explore mental processes in order to understand human nature better. Our actions are governed by our past experiences rather than by conscious choice, they believe. CBT has been derived by combining those two theories.

Research has shown, time and again, that CBT can be effective for treating several anxiety disorders, including social phobias and panic disorders.

CBT is made up of two parts: the cognitive aspect and the behavioural aspect. The cognitive aspect helps patients in understanding and changing their thinking patterns that have so far prevented them from overcoming their fears.

The behavioural aspect helps the patients in changing their reaction towards anxiety-provoking situations. This is often done through exposure therapy. Another technique applied in the behavioural aspect is teaching relaxation techniques to the patient.

Exposure therapy involves gradual exposure to your fear, so that your fear lessens over time. This is also referred to as ‘desensitisation’.

For instance, if you have a fear of dogs (Cynophobia), your therapist may start by showing you a picture of a dog. Then, they may show you a video of a dog. Next, they may ask you to stand near a dog. The final step in the exposure therapy would have you petting a dog.

The exposure therapy works by gradually increasing your exposure to the phobic stimulus, so that you slowly gain control over your fear, and then completely overcome it.

In this therapy, exposure will be done only when you’re ready, with your assent, and gradually. Exposure therapy does not have any adverse side effects, except for increased anxiety during exposure, which is temporary.


Are you suffering from a phobia?

If you want to find out, then see if you answer “yes” to the following questions:

  • Do you ever experience excessive or irrational fears when faced with a specific object or situation?
  • Does exposure to any object or situation induce extreme anxiety or a panic attack?
  • Do you realise or accept the fact that the fear you experience is excessive and irrational?
  • Do you go to great lengths to avoid a particular object (such as snakes, or spiders, or needles) or situation (such as flying or going to the dentist), because the prospect of facing it frightens you?

For a more detailed test and diagnosis, you can check out the following sites, which offer tests for phobia diagnosis:

For Social Phobias-

For Specific Phobias-

For Specific Phobias-

Helpful sites:

Following is a list of sites that provide help, support and information to people suffering from phobias:


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