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Phobias

A phobia is an irrational sense of anxiety or fear triggered by exposure to a specific object or situation. People with phobias have a strong desire to avoid whatever is causing their fears.

Fear is a form of anxiety triggered by something in your surroundings. If the situation is a real threat – for example, you're being attacked – fear is a completely sensible and appropriate reaction. With phobias, the fear is irrational because you have an exaggerated or unrealistic idea about the harmfulness of the situation.

If you have a phobia, you may realise that your fear is out of proportion to the true danger or threat, but you can't control or explain it. You will try to avoid the object or situation you fear, which can affect your daily life.

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Details

  • Types of phobias Types of phobias

    There are two main groups of phobia – specific (or simple) phobias and complex phobias.

    Specific (or simple) phobias

    These are restricted to very specific situations and usually begin in childhood or adolescence. Most people grow out of them, but for others they can be a life-long problem. The most common types of specific phobias include the following. 

    • Animal phobia. This is usually a fear of spiders, snakes, mice, birds or insects.
    • Environmental phobia. This can be a fear of thunderstorms, heights or water.
    • Situational phobia. This can be a fear of flying, visiting the dentist or being in small spaces (claustrophobia).
    • Body-related phobia. This can be a fear of injections, blood or vomit.

    Complex phobias

    These can cause significant disability and often develop after adolescence. The two most common types of complex phobias are listed below.

    • Agoraphobia. This is a fear of open spaces or being in places or situations where you feel you can’t escape. For example, you may have a fear of leaving home, being in a crowd or standing in a queue, being on a bridge, or travelling in a car, train or bus.
    • Social phobia. This is a fear of being watched and judged in social situations. For example, you might worry that you will do something embarrassing, or that people are going to be critical of you.

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  • Symptoms Symptoms of phobias

    If you have a phobia, you usually won't have any symptoms until you're faced with your feared situation or object – or sometimes if you think about, or see a picture of it. You may then develop symptoms of anxiety, which include:

    • the sensation of feeling your heart racing (palpitations)
    • sweating
    • feeling dizzy, light-headed or faint
    • churning of your stomach

    If you hyperventilate (breathe at an abnormally rapid rate), you may also have numbness and pins and needles.

    These sensations may become so unpleasant that you change your behaviour to avoid coming into contact with your feared object or situation.

  • Treatment Treatment of phobias

    Self-help

    The best way to get over a phobia is to repeatedly expose yourself to your feared object or situation and to tolerate the anxiety until it starts to decrease. Some people find they can do this on their own, or with the help of self-help books, support groups, family and friends.

    Talking therapies

    There are different types of talking therapies, such as counselling and psychotherapy. Most treatments will take a similar approach known as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This involves one-to-one sessions with a therapist trained in treating phobias. Your therapist will help you to identify links between your thoughts, feelings and behaviour and advise you how to develop coping skills. He or she may also teach you relaxation techniques and then gradually expose you (first in your imagination then in a safe and controlled way in reality) to the object or situation that you fear. You will learn to tolerate the anxiety triggered by exposure with the help of relaxation techniques.

    Your GP can usually refer you to a suitable therapist.

    Medicines

    Medicines are rarely used to treat phobias because talking therapies can usually be very successful. Your GP may, however, prescribe medicines to help you manage the physical symptoms of anxiety while you learn to overcome your phobia. For example, he or she may recommend taking a benzodiazepine or beta-blocker. If you also have depression, taking an antidepressant can help. Always ask your GP for advice and read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine.

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  • Causes Causes of phobias

    There are different theories about what causes phobias to develop.

    Phobias may run in families, but how much this is to do with learning them from your parents or siblings and how much is inherited through your genes is uncertain.

    Sometimes the start of a phobia may be triggered by a frightening situation or place, which caused you to feel anxious at the time.

  • Complications Complications of phobias

    If you have a phobia, you will try to avoid the object or situation you fear and this can affect your mental health in other ways. For example, you may feel lonely and isolated if you become unable to leave your home, go shopping or meet with friends. As a result, you may become depressed.

    If you use alcohol or drugs to cope with your feelings, then you can increase your risk of developing alcohol and drug-related health problems.

  • FAQs FAQs

    If I have one phobia, am I more likely to have another?

    Answer

    Yes, it’s possible that if you have one type of phobia, you could develop another.

    Explanation

    Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder. If you have one type, you may be more likely to have others. For example, agoraphobia is a fear or anxiety of being in open spaces or in places or situations where you feel you can’t escape. If you have agoraphobia, you may also develop monophobia (a fear of being alone) or claustrophobia (a fear of being in a small space).

    What can I do to help my friend if they have a phobia?

    Answer

    Letting your friend know you're accepting of their phobia and offering your support to seek help can be beneficial.

    Explanation

    If your friend has a phobia, one of the best things you can do is to let them know you accept how he or she is feeling. It can be helpful to acknowledge how hard it can be for your friend to deal with their phobia.

    You could also help your friend just by being with them when they are exposed to the activity causing their anxiety. Alternatively, encourage them to seek help from another source.

    If your friend is getting treatment, either by following a self-help programme or talking to a therapist, it can helpful if you ask how it's going from time to time. Be supportive and ask if there is any way you can help. For example, it might be helpful to offer to travel with your friend to or from treatment sessions.

    How many people are affected by phobias, and what is the most common type?

    Answer

    Phobias may be fairly common. The most common type is social phobia, which is a fear of being watched and judged in social situations.

    Explanation

    Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder. According to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), around one in six people have an anxiety disorder. However, because people who have an anxiety disorder often don't tell anyone about their problem, there may be many more people affected.

    The most common type of phobia is social phobia. About five in 100 people have some degree of social phobia and it’s more common in women than men.

  • Resources Resources

    Further information

    Sources

    • Understanding phobias. Mind. www.mind.org.uk, published 2011
    • Phobias. Mental Health Foundation. www.mentalhealth.org.uk, accessed 26 January 2011
    • Shyness and social phobia. The Royal College of Psychiatrists. www.rcpsych.ac.uk, published May 2008
    • Understanding talking treatments. Mind. www.mind.org.uk, published 2009
    • Making sense of cognitive behavioural therapy. Mind. www.mind.org.uk, published 2009
    • Generalised anxiety disorder and panic disorder (with or without agoraphobia) in adults: management in primary, secondary and community care. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), January 2011. www.nice.org.uk
    • Helping a family member/friend suffering with anxiety. Anxiety UK. www.anxietyuk.org.uk, accessed 27 January 2011
    • Anxiety disorders. Rethink mental Illness. www.rethink.org, published October 2011
    • Common mental health disorders: identification and pathways to care. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), May 2011. www.nice.org.uk
    • Agoraphobia. Anxiety UK. www.anxietyuk.org.uk, accessed 27 January 2011
  • Related information Related information

  • Author information Author information

    Produced by Krysta Munford, Bupa Health Information Team, February 2012.

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