Specific phobias are an overwhelming and irrational fear of objects or situations that pose little real danger but provoke anxiety and avoidance. Unlike the brief anxiety you may feel when giving a speech or taking a test, specific phobias are long-lasting, cause severe physical and psychological reactions, and can influence your ability to operate regularly at work, at school, or in social environments.
Specific phobias are among the most common anxiety disorders, and not all phobias need treatment. But if a specific phobia impairs your daily life, several therapies are available that can help you work through and overcome your anxieties — often permanently.
There are many types of phobias, and it's not uncommon to experience a specific phobia about more than one object or situation. Specific phobias can also happen along with other types of anxiety disorders.
Common categories of specific phobias are a fear of:
Situations, such as airplanes, enclosed spaces, or going to school
Nature, such as thunderstorms or heights
Animals or insects, such as dogs or spiders
Blood, injection, or injuries, such as needles, accidents, or medical procedures
Others, such as choking, vomiting, loud noises, or clowns
Each specific phobia is connected to by its own term. Examples of more common terms include acrophobia for the fear of heights and claustrophobia for the fear of confined spaces.
No matter what specific phobia you have, it's likely to produce these types of reactions:
An immediate feeling of intense fear, anxiety, and panic when exposed to or even thinking about the source of your fear
Awareness that your fears are unreasonable or exaggerated but feeling powerless to control them
Worsening anxiety as the situation or object gets closer to you in time or physical proximity
Doing everything possible to avoid the object or situation or enduring it with intense anxiety or fear
Difficulty functioning normally because of your fear
Physical reactions and sensations, including sweating, rapid heartbeat, tight chest or difficulty breathing
Feeling nauseated, dizzy or fainting around blood or injuries
In children, possibly tantrums, clinging, crying, or refusing to leave a parent's side or approach their fear
Much is still unknown about the actual cause of specific phobias. Causes may include:
Negative events: Many phobias develop as a result of having a negative experience or panic attack related to a specific object or situation.
Genetics and environment: There may be a connection between your own specific phobia and the phobia or anxiety of your parents — this could be due to heredity or learned behavior.
Brain function: Changes in brain functioning also may play a part in developing specific phobias.
These factors may increase your risk of specific phobias:
Your age: Specific phobias can first appear in childhood, usually by age 10, but can occur later in life.
Your relatives: If someone in your family has a specific phobia or anxiety, you're more likely to develop it, too. This could be an inherited tendency, or children may learn specific phobias by observing a family member's phobic reaction to an object or a situation.
Your personality: Your risk may increase if you're more sensitive, more inhibited or more negative than the norm.
A negative experience: Experiencing a frightening traumatic event, such as being trapped in an elevator or attacked by an animal, may trigger the development of a specific phobia.
Learning about negative occurrences: Hearing about negative information or experiences, such as plane crashes, can lead to the development of a specific phobia.
The best treatment for specific phobias is a form of psychotherapy called exposure therapy. Sometimes your doctor may also suggest other therapies or medication. Understanding the cause of a phobia is actually less significant than focusing on how to treat the delay behavior that has developed over time.
The goal of treatment is to enhance the quality of life so that you're no longer limited by your phobias. As you learn how to better control and correlate to your reactions, thoughts, and feelings, you'll find that your anxiety and fear are diminished and no longer in control of your life. Treatment is usually directed at one specific phobia at a time.
Talking with a mental health professional can help you manage your specific phobia. Exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy are the most effective treatments.
Exposure therapy focuses on changing your response to the object or situation that you fear. Gradual, repeated exposure to the source of your specific phobia and the related thoughts, feelings, and sensations may help you learn to manage your anxiety. For example, if you're afraid of elevators, your therapy may progress from simply thinking about getting into an elevator, to looking at pictures of elevators, to going near an elevator, to stepping into an elevator. Next, you may take a one-floor ride, then ride several floors, and then ride in a crowded elevator.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) involves exposure combined with other techniques to learn ways to view and cope with the feared object or situation differently. You learn alternative beliefs about your fears and bodily sensations and the impact they've had on your life. CBT emphasizes learning to develop a sense of mastery and confidence with your thoughts and feelings rather than feeling overwhelmed by them.