What is specific phobia

Specific phobia is an intense and ongoing fear about a particular object or situation.  There is a range of possible causes of specific phobia and some mental and physical signs that it might be happening. There are 5 different types of specific phobias and, luckily, a handful of effective treatments also exist.

This could be useful if you want to:

  • Learn what specific phobia is and isn't
  • Learn more about how to tell if you have a specific phobia
  • Understand possible causes of specific phobia and options for treatment
  • Identify practical next steps for managing specific phobia 

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What is a specific phobia?

Most people feel worried or fearful about certain objects or situations, such as spiders, or getting an injection. Often, this is a rational, normal response to a perceived threat. For some people however, these objects or situations cause anxiety that is out of proportion to the actual threat, which negatively impacts their day-to-day life. This is known as a specific phobia.

People with specific phobias usually realise that their fears are irrational, but facing or thinking about the feared object or situation, brings on severe feelings of anxiety. To prevent these feelings, people with specific phobia often avoid things they’re afraid of, even if it means missing out on enjoyable activities. 

What causes specific phobias?

Specific phobias often arise in childhood or early adolescence. Two main factors are likely to increase a person’s risk of developing a specific phobia:

Family history – A family history of mental health problems may increase the likelihood of developing a specific phobia. This might occur via inherited genes or by learning anxious patterns of thinking or behaving from parents.

Traumatic experiences – People who have witnessed, experienced or been told about a traumatic event, may develop a fear of similar objects or situations in the future. Avoiding these things may also contribute to the development of a specific phobia.

What are the signs and symptoms of specific phobias?

A range of mental and physical signs may indicate that a person has a specific phobia.

Mental signs can include:

  • Feeling excessively fearful of a situation or object, on an ongoing basis
  • Feeling the need to avoid, or escape from, the feared situation or object
  • Feeling panicked or distressed when exposed to the situation or object

Physical signs can include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Nausea or butterflies in the stomach
  • Shortness of breath, or a feeling of choking

Some people with specific phobias may also experience panic attacks.

What are some types of specific phobias?

Specific phobias are divided into five categories, according to the feared object or situation. These include:

  1. Animals (e.g. snakes, spiders, dogs, insects)
  2. The natural environment (e.g. heights, storms, water)
  3. Blood, injuries or injections (e.g. needles, wounds, medical procedures)
  4. Situations (e.g. aeroplanes, elevators, enclosed spaces)
  5. Other (e.g. fears of choking or vomiting)

Managing specific phobias

Specific phobias are treatable and seeking professional help is an important step to recovery. Psychological treatments are usually used in the first instance and focus on:

  • Changing thinking – e.g. identifying and shifting unhelpful and unrealistic ways of thinking.
  • Changing behaviour – e.g. breaking the habit of avoiding the feared object or situation.
  • Education – e.g. learning about the symptoms of anxiety and why they occur. In some cases of specific phobia, medication may also be effective.

Apart from seeking professional help, meditation, relaxation techniques and maintaining a healthy lifestyle may also help reduce anxiety associated with specific phobias.

What can I do now?

Last reviewed: 06 August, 2015
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