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Phobias: What, How, & Why

Updated on September 20, 2018

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

There is 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 a phobia?

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.”

Some of the commonest phobias people have 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 includes stage fright)

Have you ever had a phobia? What was it?

See results

Symptoms of phobias

Severe phobias often 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, and powerlessness over the fear.

Effects of phobias

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. A phobia can cause embarrassing situations - How do you explain to your spouse that you can’t go abroad for your honeymoon because of your fear of flights? How do you explain to a potential employer that you can’t accept their job offer because your office is up 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. Phobias can be 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 friends, or go 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 can do will ever cure it. You may feel that it’ll stay with you forever, hampering your day-to-day life and making you miserable.

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

Diagnosing a phobia

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, spiders, or needles) or situation (such as flying or going to the dentist), because the prospect of facing it frightens you?

It's always best to go to a doctor for a diagnosis of any sort, but if you aren't ready to go to them yet, or just want to know to satiate your curiosity, here are a few sites that may help:

1. For social phobias

2. For specific phobias

3. For general anxiety (paid test - if you want to know if your fear or anxiety is severe)

Treatment of phobias

Treating a phobia with medication

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, instead of curing the phobia.

However, in severe cases, medication might be necessary to reduce symptoms to help you function 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 is a good idea to ask your therapist about it beforehand.


Treating a phobia with talking treatments

Talking treatments, such as counselling and psychotherapy are very often effective methods for treating phobias. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in particular has been found to be very effective in treating phobias.

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 - which involves gradual exposure to your fear, so that your fear lessens over time. This process is known 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.

Exposure is done only when you’re ready, with your assent.

Helpful sites

So, supposing you just discovered that you do, in fact, have a phobia. What now?

You'll have to work towards treatment, but in the mean time, you'll need support and information - which you can find here and here.


Zig Ziglar once said: "Fear has two meanings: 'Forget everything and run', or 'Face everything and rise'. The choice is yours."

Remember that.

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