A phobia is an ongoing and unreasonable fear of a certain object, animal, activity, or situation that poses little to no actual danger.
Specific phobias are a type of anxiety disorder in which a person may feel extremely anxious or has a panic attack when exposed to the object of fear. Specific phobias are a common mental disorder.
Common phobias include the fear of:
- Blood, injections, and other medical procedures
- Certain animals (for instance, dogs or snakes)
- Enclosed spaces
- High places
- Insects or spiders
Being exposed to the feared object, or even thinking about being exposed to it causes an anxiety reaction.
- This fear or anxiety is much stronger than the real threat.
- You may sweat excessively, have problems controlling your muscles or actions, or have a fast heart rate.
You avoid situations in which you may come into contact with the feared object or animal. For example, avoiding driving through tunnels, if tunnels are your phobia. This type of avoidance can interfere with your job and social life.
Exams and Tests
The health care provider will ask about your history of phobia, and will get a description of the behavior from you, your family, and friends.
The goal of treatment is to help you function effectively. The success of the treatment usually depends on how severe your phobia is.
Systematic desensitization is a technique used to treat phobias. You are asked to relax, then imagine the parts of the phobia, working from the least fearful to the most fearful. Gradual exposure to the real-life situation has also been used with success to help people overcome their fears.
Anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications are sometimes used to help relieve the symptoms.
Behavioral treatment is often used together with drug therapy. This can include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy, including learning to recognize and replace panic-causing thoughts
- Pleasant mental imagery
- Relaxation techniques
Behavioral treatment appears to have long-lasting benefits.
Other treatments that can reduce the number of attacks include:
- Getting regular exercise
- Getting enough sleep
- Reducing or avoiding the use of caffeine, some over-the-counter cold medications, and other stimulants
Phobia clinics and group therapy are available in some areas to help people deal with common phobias, such as a fear of flying.
Phobias tend to be chronic, but they can respond to treatment.
Some phobias may have consequences that affect job performance or social functioning. Some anti-anxiety medications used to treat phobias may cause physical dependence.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call for an appointment with your health care provider or a mental health professional if a simple phobia is interfering with life activities.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, Va: American Psychiatric Publishing. 2013.
Hamm AO. Specific phobias. Psychiatr Clin N Am.
Taylor CT, Pollack MH, LeBeau RT, Simon NM. Anxiety disorders: Panic, social anxiety, and generalized anxiety. In: Stern TA, Rosenbaum JF, Fava M, et al., eds. Massachusetts General Hospital Comprehensive Clinical Psychiatry. 1st ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Mosby; 2008:chap 32.
Update Date 3/10/2014
Updated by: Timothy Rogge, MD, Medical Director, Family Medical Psychiatry Center, Kirkland, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.