How to tell if you have a phobia

If you have an intense and long-lasting fear of a particular object or situation, you may have a phobia. Phobias affect around 15 per cent of Australians. Read on to find out more about phobias and what to do if you have one.

This can help if:

  • you want to know if you have a phobia

  • your fear of an object or situation is negatively affecting your life

  • you’re looking for practical steps for managing a phobia.

Boy in grey jumper with red watch

What are phobias?

Fear is a normal and healthy response to threat, and activates our flight-or-fight response when we are in physical danger. However, we also experience this response when faced with perceived threats, such as being in an enclosed space or a big crowd. We call these fears phobias when they get in the way of responsibilities like going to school or work, and cause us to miss out on enjoyable activities.

People can be aware that they are responding to a perceived threat and not an actual one, but may still be unable to control the anxiety it causes. Some phobias cause extreme distress and can be associated with panic attacks.

Types of phobias

There are three different types of phobia:

  • Specific phobia: an intense, irrational fear of an object, animal or experience.

  • Social phobia: otherwise known as social anxiety, this is an intense fear of public judgement or humiliation in a social setting. It’s not the same as shyness, and can be really debilitating.

  • Agoraphobia: the fear of leaving home or a perceived safe space. This phobia tends to be associated with panic attacks, and with the fear of having a panic attack when away from home.

Specific phobias can be categorised according to the object or situation. The categories include fear of:

  • animals (e.g. snakes, spiders, dogs, insects)

  • the natural environment (e.g. heights, storms, water)

  • blood, injuries or medical situations (e.g. needles, wounds, medical procedures)

  • situations (e.g. aeroplanes, elevators, enclosed spaces)

  • other (e.g. choking, loud noises, clowns).

Specific phobias can be linked to causes and triggers that might not occur frequently in everyday life (e.g. snakes). Social phobia and agoraphobia are more complex, as their triggers aren’t as easily identified and are harder to avoid (e.g. crowds).

Signs and symptoms of phobias

Signs you may have a phobia include:

  • being excessively fearful of a situation or object on an ongoing basis, for six months or more

  • feeling an intense need to avoid or escape from the feared situation or object

  • experiencing panic or distress when exposed to the situation or object

  • feeling unable to function properly or out of control when exposed to the situation or object

  • knowing that the fear is unreasonable or exaggerated, but being unable to control the feelings of distress.

Feelings of anxiety and distress can be produced just by thinking about the situation or object. Physical symptoms can include:

  • sweating

  • chest pain or tightness

  • abnormal breathing

  • pins and needles

  • dry mouth

  • confusion or disorientation

  • nausea or dizziness

  • headache.

People with complex phobias (social phobia and agoraphobia) are more likely to see an impact on their wellbeing, since the triggers for these phobias are more common and harder to avoid. For example, someone might be unable to go to school or work, or may avoid seeing their friends and family.

What causes phobias?

Specific phobias usually develop before the age of ten. They can be the result of a frightening early experience with a specific object or situation (e.g. if a young child is bitten by a dog). Phobias can also start during childhood from witnessing the phobia of someone close to them (e.g. a child whose parent has a phobia of spiders is more likely to develop the same phobia).

The causes of complex phobias are harder to determine. It’s thought that these phobias result from a combination of life experiences, personality traits, genetics and family history. Find more information about the causes of phobias and anxiety disorders here.

How do you get treatment for phobias?

Phobias are really difficult to manage alone, and luckily, you don’t have to – there’s help out there. Like many other anxiety disorders, they respond well to treatment. The first step is to see your GP or mental health professional, or get in touch with a professional service online or over the phone.

Your doctor will work with you, at a pace that suits you, to figure out a treatment plan that works for you. This could include a combination of therapy, medication and self-management strategies. Get some more information about treatments for anxiety disorders here.

What can I do now?