What is phobias?

Phobias: Overview

A phobia is an extreme fear of something. We all live with fears, such as fear of an angry dog running toward you. It is normal to feel fear at the moment that you face real danger. But people with phobias have fears that interfere with their daily lives. They usually know that their fears are not based on real threats, but they feel that they are not able to control the fears.

There are different types of phobias. Fear of being closed in a small space and fear of flying in an airplane are common phobias. You might be afraid of spiders, or fear being struck by lightning, or drowning. Fear of high places is another common phobia. These phobias can cause anxiety, panic, trembling, and a rapid heartbeat. Fear might make you act in a way that is not really needed, such as never leaving home or not climbing stairs. Just thinking about what you fear might make you feel ill.

Many people who finish treatment of phobias are able to overcome their fears over time. If your fear gets in the way of your daily activities, your doctor may recommend behavior therapy or medicine.


Phobias are extreme fears that interfere with daily life.

Phobias are sometimes present with other conditions, such as panic disorders and mood disorders. Phobias can be treated to help reduce feelings of fear and anxiety.

What are the symptoms of a phobia?

The main symptom of a phobia is an extreme fear of being around an object, being in a situation, or doing an activity. People with a phobia usually feel immediate fear or anxiety when around the object or in the situation that they are afraid of. Even just the thought of these things can cause stress in people who have phobias. Children show their stress by crying, having tantrums, freezing, or clinging to someone else.

People with phobias may:

  • Avoid being around the object or in the situation they are afraid of.
  • Have issues at school or work because of the phobia.
  • Have had symptoms for around 6 months or more.

How are phobias treated?

Phobias are treated with cognitive-behavioral therapy. This therapy includes imagining or actually being close to the object, situation, or activity that you are afraid of. This is called exposure therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can be done with one person or in a group.

One type of exposure involves a series of steps to get closer to the object, situation, or activity. This is called systematic desensitization. For example, if you have a phobia of heights, you might first imagine yourself in a high place, such as a balcony on the 10th floor of a building. Then you would do an exercise to help you relax until your worry and fear about heights are less. Next, you would try going onto a balcony on a lower floor and do the exercise to help you relax. Finally, over time, you might be able to go onto the 10th-floor balcony without being afraid.

Sometimes your doctor might prescribe medicine. Medicine may help with the symptoms of anxiety that you have because of your phobia. Medicine for phobias is most useful if it is combined with cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Unfortunately, many people don't seek treatment for anxiety disorders. You may not seek treatment because you think the symptoms are not bad enough or that you can work things out on your own. But getting treatment is important.

How are phobias diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms, including how long you've had them. They will also ask questions about your medical history and any medicines you're taking. Your doctor may ask questions to rule out other mental health conditions that have symptoms similar to those of a phobia, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

How can you care for yourself when you have phobias?

Be kind to yourself and trust that you can improve. Also, be open to making some changes. Find a counselor you like and trust. Talk openly and honestly about your problems. Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. And get at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week.

What causes phobias?

The cause of phobias is unknown. If you have a family member with a phobia, you are more likely to have a phobia. Sometimes a person might have a phobia because they:

  • Had something bad happen, such as being bitten by a dog.
  • Saw someone else who was very scared of something, such as sitting in an airplane near a person who is afraid of flying.
  • Learned about something bad happening, such as a plane crash.

Most phobias start when a person is a child or a teenager. Situational phobias usually start when a person is an adult. If a person has one phobia, they are more likely to have another phobia as well.

Sometimes other mental health conditions can cause symptoms that are similar to the symptoms you get from a phobia.

What is a phobia?

Having a phobia means you are extremely afraid of a specific object, situation, or activity. Having a phobia about something is very different from everyday worry or stress. For example, most people feel worry and stress at some time, such as when speaking in front of a large group of people. People with phobias have so much fear that it's hard to do normal activities, such as going to work.

There are many different types of phobias:

  • Natural environment phobias, such as being afraid of storms or lightning.
  • Animal phobias, such as being afraid of spiders or dogs.
  • Blood-injection-injury phobias, such as being afraid of blood or getting a shot (injection).
  • Situational phobias, such as being afraid of flying, elevators (and other closed spaces), or bridges.

Many people who have phobias also have another condition such as a different anxiety disorder, depression, or substance use disorder.

Phobias: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You feel you cannot stop from hurting yourself or someone else.

Where to get help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

If you or someone you know talks about suicide, self-harm, a mental health crisis, a substance use crisis, or any other kind of emotional distress, get help right away. You can:

  • Call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.
  • Call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
  • Text HOME to 741741 to access the Crisis Text Line.

Consider saving these numbers in your phone.

Go to 988lifeline.org for more information or to chat online.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You have trouble sleeping.
  • You feel anxious or depressed.
  • You have a sudden change in behavior.
  • You have trouble taking care of yourself, or you become confused when doing simple chores or tasks.
  • You start to use drugs or drink alcohol heavily.
  • Your symptoms often upset your daily activities.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.