Medically reviewed by Elle Markman, PsyD
A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder that involves intense, ongoing fear of a certain object, situation, activity, or environment. While we all experience fear, phobias are much more severe.
Someone with a phobia may take extreme lengths to avoid the source of their fear or become extremely distressed when faced with what scares them. This can negatively affect many aspects of their life, from relationships to social situations, school, and work.
Types of Phobias
There are three main types of phobias: social anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, and specific phobias. The former two were previously known as complex phobias and are generally considered more severe. Specific phobias are sometimes called simple phobias.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, involves an extreme fear of social situations. This phobia affects around 7% of adults in the U.S.
People with social phobia often go out of their way to avoid social gatherings or events where they might be embarrassed or uncomfortable. People with this type of phobia may often avoid dating, parties, work events, public speaking, or making small talk with strangers, depending on which situation they feel the most dread and discomfort. Some may even avoid eating at restaurants or shopping in public places.
If they do participate in social events, people with this anxiety disorder may typically feel distressed, awkward, and self-conscious.
An estimated 1% to 2.9% of adolescents and adults in the U.S. have agoraphobia—a phobia that refers to an intense fear of being in unfamiliar or open places.
People with agoraphobia are often especially afraid of situations in which they might feel trapped or find it hard to escape, such as public transit, lines, or crowded areas. In severe cases, people with this phobia may avoid leaving the house entirely—especially alone.
A specific phobia, or simple phobia, is a persistent fear of a certain thing, animal, person, or situation that causes extreme distress. About 8% to 12% of U.S. adults have a specific phobia.
There are five subtypes of specific phobias, including:
Natural environment type
Animal phobias involve intense fears of animals and insects. Common animal phobias include:
Arachnophobia: Fear of spiders
Chiroptophobia: Fear of bats
Cynophobia: Fear of dogs
Ophidiophobia: Fear of snakes
Zoophobia: Fear of animals
People with natural environment phobias are afraid of particular aspects of nature, such as natural disasters. Examples of natural environment phobias include:
Acrophobia: Fear of heights
Aquaphobia: Fear of water
Astraphobia: Fear of thunderstorms
Thalassophobia: Fear of the ocean
Blood-injection-injury (BII) phobias refer to fears of having or witnessing medical problems or procedures. Some examples of BII phobias are:
Hemophobia: Fear of blood
Nosocomephobia: Fear of hospitals
Tomophobia: Fear of surgery
Trypanophobia: Fear of needles
Situational phobias involve being afraid of certain places, surroundings, and circumstances. Common situational type phobias include:
Aerophobia: Fear of flying
Amaxophobia: Fear of driving
Claustrophobia: Fear of confined spaces
Escalaphobia: Fear of escalators
Phobias that fall under "other" don’t fit into any of the above categories. Examples include:
Coulrophobia: Fear of clowns
Chorophobia: Fear of dancing
Erotophobia: Fear of sex
Phonophobia: Fear of loud noises
Keep in mind: these phobias are not an exhaustive list. There are several types of other specific phobias that you can have.
People with phobias experience symptoms of distress, anxiety, and/or panic attacks when faced with the source of their fear. These may include:
Feelings of dread or terror
Desire to escape
Disorientation and confusion
Difficulty with balance and coordination
These symptoms often lead people to go out of their way to avoid the object or environment they’re afraid of. They may even avoid anything that reminds them of their fear, such as certain books, tv shows, and movies.
This pattern of avoidance can lead to a variety of complications in day-to-day life. For example, someone with trypanophobia might avoid necessary medical care due to their overwhelming fear of needles.
It’s not entirely clear what causes some people to develop phobias. However, researchers have identified the following as potential contributing factors:
Genetics: Genetic factors may increase your risk of receiving a diagnosis for a specific phobia, agoraphobia, or social anxiety disorder at some point. Twin studies suggest that some phobias are passed down in families.
Parenting: Certain parenting styles and learned childhood responses may contribute to the development of phobias.
Traumatic experiences: Past negative experiences and traumas can also lead to phobias. For example, someone with a history of severe childhood illness may eventually develop a phobia of hospitals. Someone who was once bitten by a dog could develop an intense fear of dogs.
While anyone can develop a phobia, you may be at an increased risk of having a phobia if you align with any of the following risk factors:
Assigned female at birth: Women are over twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with a phobia.
Personality traits: Research suggests that some personality traits, such as neuroticism and perfectionism, may make you more prone to developing a phobia.
Abuse history: People with phobias are significantly more likely to have experienced or witnessed abuse and other forms of trauma, including domestic violence.
Substance use: Studies show that excessive drug and alcohol use is associated with the development of phobias, as well as other anxiety disorders.
A therapist, psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental healthcare provider can diagnose you with a phobia using the criteria for specific phobias, agoraphobia, or social anxiety disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5).
During your session, you can expect your provider to ask you about your personal and family medical history, current symptoms, lifestyle habits, and triggers. According to the DSM-5, to meet the following diagnostic criteria for a phobia:
Experiencing intense fear for at least six months
Your fear must be disproportionate or irrational
The phobia impairs your daily functioning in at least one significant area of your life (e.g., work, social situations, romantic relationships, family, etc.)
Some types of psychotherapy are considered the gold standard of treatment for phobias. Some healthcare providers may also prescribe medication—such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or sedatives—to treat certain symptoms or to offer short-term relief during a phobia-induced panic or anxiety attack.
Types of psychotherapy that have been used successfully to treat phobias include:
Exposure therapy: Also called exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, this approach involves gradual exposure to the source of your fear and helping you learn through experience that your feared outcomes will not occur or that these outcomes will be more tolerable than you expect. In some cases, your therapist may incorporate virtual reality (VR) to simulate complex situations, such as flying or interacting with others. Research suggests that exposure therapy is effective for up to 90% of people with phobias who receive this treatment.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Your therapist can use CBT alone or alongside ERP therapy to help you develop more effective coping methods and problem-solving skills as you navigate your phobia treatment.
Mindfulness therapy: Mindfulness therapy, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction, can help you improve your emotions and stress reactivity about your phobia.
Related:Natural Remedies for Anxiety
How to Prevent Phobia-Related Panic Attacks
You can’t stop yourself from developing a phobia. However, you may be able to prevent some phobia-related panic or anxiety attacks with the following short-term strategies:
Using relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing exercises
Reducing alcohol intake
Joining an online or in-person peer support group for people who also live with your specific phobia
In the long term, the best way to prevent a phobia from developing is through gradual exposure to your fear, as practiced in exposure therapy.
Up to 81% of people with phobias have co-occurring mental health conditions—meaning, you may live with both your phobia and one of the following conditions at the same time:
Other anxiety disorders
Mood disorders, such as bipolar disorder
Studies suggest that people with phobias also have a higher risk of a number of physical health conditions, such as:
Hypertension (high blood pressure)
Respiratory diseases, such as asthma
Gastrointestinal diseases, such as ulcers
Living With Phobias
Some phobias resolve on their own without treatment, especially among children and teens. For example, around 2.9% of children experience social phobia, in comparison to just 0.3% of adolescents. This suggests that many childhood fears can go away over time.
If left untreated, phobias may lead to social isolation, relationship conflicts, and other kinds of dysfunction. About 30% of people with phobias say they experience moderate impairment due to their fear, while 22% say their phobia causes major dysfunction in their daily life.
Living with a phobia can feel scary and overwhelming. It may also feel hard to ask for help—and that's OK. However, it's important to note that seeking care and support from a mental health professional can help you reduce your symptoms, slowly work to overcome your phobia, and improve your quality of life.
Frequently Asked Questions
How many phobias are there?
So far, there are over 500 named phobias. However, the list of phobias is always growing. New phobias are regularly being discovered, researched, and documented.
What is the most common phobia?
Estimates about the single most common phobia vary widely. However, research suggests that some of the most common phobias are natural environment phobias and animal phobias. Common animal phobias include arachnophobia (fear of spiders), cynophobia (fear of dogs), and ophidiophobia (fear of snakes). Common phobias related to the natural environment include astraphobia (fear of thunder and lightning) and acrophobia (fear of heights).
What is the difference between fear and phobia?
Everyone is afraid at times. Fear is an instinctual, natural human reaction to something that is potentially dangerous or threatening. Phobias are fears that become disproportionate or irrational to the actual level of danger involved.
What is the rarest phobia?
Researchers haven't identified a single phobia as the rarest one. Instead, many rare phobias have been documented only once or twice in specific case studies. Examples of very rare phobias include alektorophobia (fear of chickens) and ambulophobia (fear of walking).
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