What is a phobia?

Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder where you have a persistent, irrational or excessive fear of certain things, places or situations, and this fear impacts upon your life. There are a number of causes of phobias and the signs of phobias are similar to those of other anxiety disorders. Phobias can be effectively treated with professional help.

This could be for you if:

  • You suffer persistent, irrational fears
  • You realise your fear is irrational, but can't get it to go away
  • Your fears are impacting negatively on your life
  • You want to learn to manage them
Brown wooden door against orange striped wallpaper

What is a phobia?

A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder that involves any strong, excessive or irrational fear that won't go away. If this fear impacts negatively on your life – for example, if you avoid certain places or restrict your activities because of it - then it becomes a specific phobia.

For a fear to be a phobia, it has to be excessive and interfere negatively on your life. For example, a lot of people will feel a certain amount of fear about spiders down in the shed, but if the fear is so extreme that it results in behaviour that seems excessive considering the reality of the situation, it’s likely to be a phobia. If they’re avoiding the shed completely (even if they really, really need something in there) and are too anxious to go in there because there might be a spider, that’s part of a phobia. It’s also a phobia when the risk is out of proportion to the anxiety. In the case of the spiders, there might be spiders in the shed but the chance of them hurting you are really, really low.

What causes phobias?

There are many different things that can cause phobias. Often, someone has had an experience that has led to the phobia developing. For example, they may have been jumped on and knocked over by a dog, and felt very distressed which could lead to a phobia of dogs developing, or been eating a peanut butter sandwich for the first time and felt like they had it stuck to the roof of their mouth and couldn’t breathe - this might create a phobia of peanut butter sandwiches.

What are the signs of a phobia?

When a person is exposed to the object or situation they're afraid of, they will show signs of anxiety – sometimes to the point of having a panic attack. These can include: 

  • Anxious thoughts and feelings of intense fear
  • Trying to escape from the situation immediately or as soon as possible
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Dry mouth/difficulty breathing/choking sensation
  • Mounting fear, dread or panic
  • Chest pains
  • Dizziness/light-headedness

Managing phobias

Even though people with phobias know their fears are excessive or irrational, they often need help to overcome them. The best way to do this is with a GP, counsellor, psychologist or other mental health professionals. They will be able to work with you to figure out the most effective ways for you to treat your phobia.

What can I do now?

  • Don’t avoid the thing that makes you anxious.
  • Build confidence in other areas of your life.
  • Avoid using drugs or alcohol to deal with the fear.
Last reviewed: 06 August, 2015
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