What is a phobia?
A phobia is defined as an overwhelming and unreasonable fear of something that does not pose a real risk or danger. Phobias are categorized as either general or specific.

General phobias include agoraphobia, the fear of being in a situation (especially a public one) that you can't get our of quickly and where you can't get help for intense anxiety symptoms, and social phobia, the fear of being exposed to certain social or performance situations.

Specific phobias include fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia), fear of heights (acrophobia), fear of snakes (ophidiophobia), and hundreds of other specific, distinctive fears. In some cases, phobias have little effect on a person's day-to-day life because they rarely encounter the thing they fear. For other people, phobias can become debilitating and interfere with their ability to function at work or in social settings.

What are the symptoms of phobias?
Fear itself is the main symptom of a phobia. When confronted by the feared object or situation, the fear response can cause a feeling of uncontrollable anxiety - even to the level of a panic attack. Physical symptoms include rapid heartbeat, sweating, and difficulty breathing. People with phobias of blood, needles, or injury can faint due to an intense physical response to their fear.

A person who is gripped by these feelings of anxiety might feel the need to do whatever it takes to avoid the thing that is feared. But despite the fact that their anxiety feels uncontrollable, a person with a phobia will usually recognize that their fear is unreasonable and excessive.

What are the causes and risk factors of phobias?
Like other anxiety disorders, phobias seem to run in families. As a child, you may pick up on and mirror a family member's fear reactions, taking them on as your own phobia. Other potential causes of phobias include genetics, brain chemistry, and traumatic experiences.

Phobias can develop at any age, but most begin young. Females are diagnosed with phobias more than males, but this is thought to be due to the tendency of males to hide or mask fears and to not seek help for their mental health concerns.

How is a phobia diagnosed?
Many people may say they have a phobia of one thing or another, but to be clinically diagnosed with a phobia, you must meet certain criteria, based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). These criteria include, but are not limited to:

  • persistent and intense fear triggered by a particular object or situation
  • an immediate anxiety response to the fear
  • fear lasting for 6 months or longer
  • no other explainable symptoms (medical conditions, other anxiety disorders)

How can a phobia be treated?
Specific phobias can be treated through therapy, medications, or a combination of both. Common types of therapy used to treat phobias include exposure therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. Medications - like antidepressants, sedatives, or beta blockers - might be prescribed to reduce symptoms of anxiety triggered by phobias. Learn more about medications commonly prescribed to treat anxiety disorders.