Over 12% of adults in the US meet the diagnostic criteria for a specific phobia. However, phobias come with much misunderstanding: some people believe they are just ‘overrated fears’ while others believe phobias can’t be overcome. On the contrary - phobias are a mental health issue. And they can be treated. In this article, we’re setting the record straight about common phobias - what they are, what they aren’t, how they are diagnosed, and how to get help.
What is a phobia?
Phobias are a kind of anxiety disorder; so they’re in the same diagnostic category as generalized anxiety disorder, but manifest differently. A phobia is defined as an overwhelming and debilitating fear of an object, place, situation, feeling or animal. But phobias are more pronounced than fears. They develop when a person has an exaggerated or unrealistic sense of danger about a situation or object. If a phobia becomes very severe, a person may organize their life around avoiding that thing that's causing them anxiety - so phobias can become debilitating. And in some cases, even thinking about the source of a phobia can make a person feel anxious or panicky (known as anticipatory anxiety).
Types of phobias
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), there are three main types of phobias:
- Specific phobias. Refers to an intense, persistent, and marked fear of a specific object or situation (such as flying, insects, or heights). People with specific phobias may be aware that their anxiety is out of proportion but feel helpless to control it.
- Agoraphobia. Refers to a deep fear of being in an environment (often outside or with many other people) where escape might be difficult or help unavailable in the event of developing panic-like symptoms.
- Social phobia. Also called social anxiety disorder; involves acute fear and self-consciousness in social situations. Can lead people to avoid attending events, meeting new people, or even seeking employment.
Studies indicate that specific phobias concerning heights and animals/insects are the most common, but here is a list of other common specific phobias for which people seek treatment:
- Acrophobia - fear of heights
- Aerophobia - fear of flying
- Aquaphobia - fear of water
- Astraphobia - fear of storms
- Claustrophobia - fear of confined or tight spaces
- Dentophobia - fear of dentists
- Hemophobia - fear of blood
- Nosocomephobia - fear of hospitals
- Zoophobia - fear of animals
In all cases, these intense fears are real for the people experiencing them. They are not figments of imaginations nor deliberate exaggerations of fear.
People with phobias feel very specific and often debilitating symptoms when they come into contact with the source of their fear. Symptoms may include the following if you find yourself around the phobia source:
- unsteadiness, dizziness, lightheadedness
- increased heart rate or palpitations
- shortness of breath
- trembling or shaking
- upset stomach
Risk factors for phobias
The causes of anxiety disorders like phobias are unknown but likely involve a combination of genetic, environmental, psychological, and developmental factors. Anxiety disorders can run in families, suggesting that a combination of genetics and environmental stresses can result in a diagnosed phobia.
Help for phobias
Mental health professionals can diagnose a phobia - and they can be treated successfully. Often treatment involves a combination of exposure, medication and coping strategies - all of which a qualified professional can provide.
Scientists are finding that the phobias start out less intense and grow in acuteness over time - suggesting the possibility that interrupting the course of phobias with treatment early on could reduce their prevalence. A recent study, published in Lancet Psychiatry found that, “phobias can persist for several years, or even decades in 10-30% of cases, and are strongly predictive of the onset of other anxiety and mood disorders. Their high comorbidity with other mental disorders, especially after onset of the phobia, suggests that early treatment of phobias could also alter the risk of other disorders.”
The key takeaway? Consult with a mental health professional as early as possible if you or a loved one believe you have symptoms of a phobia.
Current Topics in Behavioral Neuroscience
National Institute of Mental Health