Specific phobias are an overwhelming and unreasonable fear of objects or situations that pose little real danger but provoke anxiety and avoidance.
Specific phobias are an overwhelming and unreasonable fear of objects or situations that pose little real danger but provoke anxiety and avoidance. Unlike the brief anxiety you may feel when giving a speech or taking a test, specific phobias are long lasting, cause intense physical and psychological reactions, and can affect your ability to function normally at work, at school or in social settings.
Specific phobias are among the most common anxiety disorders, and not all phobias need treatment. But if a specific phobia affects your daily life, several therapies are available that can help you work through and overcome your fears — often permanently.
A specific phobia involves an intense, persistent fear of a specific object or situation that's out of proportion to the actual risk. There are many types of phobias, and it's not unusual to experience a specific phobia about more than one object or situation. Specific phobias can also occur along with other types of anxiety disorders.
Common categories of specific phobias are a fear of:
Each specific phobia is referred to by its own term. Examples of more common terms include acrophobia for the fear of heights and claustrophobia for the fear of confined spaces.
No matter what specific phobia you have, it's likely to produce these types of reactions:
When to see a doctor
An unreasonable fear can be an annoyance — having to take the stairs instead of an elevator or driving the long way to work instead of taking the freeway, for instance — but it isn't considered a specific phobia unless it seriously disrupts your life. If anxiety negatively affects functioning in work, school or social situations, talk with your doctor or a mental health professional.
Childhood fears, such as fear of the dark, of monsters or of being left alone, are common, and most children outgrow them. But if your child has a persistent, excessive fear that interferes with daily functioning at home or school, talk to your child's doctor.
Most people can be helped with the right therapy. And therapy tends to be easier when the phobia is addressed right away rather than waiting.
Much is still unknown about the actual cause of specific phobias. Causes may include:
These factors may increase your risk of specific phobias:
Although specific phobias may seem silly to others, they can be devastating to the people who have them, causing problems that affect many aspects of life.
If you have a specific phobia, consider getting psychological help, especially if you have children. Although genetics likely plays a role in the development of specific phobias, repeatedly seeing someone else's phobic reaction can trigger a specific phobia in children.
By dealing with your own fears, you'll be teaching your child excellent resiliency skills and encouraging him or her to take brave actions just like you did.
Diagnosis of specific phobias is based on a thorough clinical interview and diagnostic guidelines. Your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms and take a medical, psychiatric and social history. He or she may use the diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association.
The best treatment for specific phobias is a form of psychotherapy called exposure therapy. Sometimes your doctor may also recommend other therapies or medication. Understanding the cause of a phobia is actually less important than focusing on how to treat the avoidance behavior that has developed over time.
The goal of treatment is to improve quality of life so that you're no longer limited by your phobias. As you learn how to better manage and relate to your reactions, thoughts and feelings, you'll find that your anxiety and fear are reduced and no longer in control of your life. Treatment is usually directed at one specific phobia at a time.
Talking with a mental health professional can help you manage your specific phobia. Exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy are the most effective treatments.
Generally psychotherapy using exposure therapy is successful in treating specific phobias. However, sometimes medications can help reduce the anxiety and panic symptoms you experience from thinking about or being exposed to the object or situation you fear.
Medications may be used during initial treatment or for short-term use in specific, infrequently encountered situations, such as flying on an airplane, public speaking or going through an MRI procedure.
Ask your doctor or other health care professional to suggest lifestyle and other strategies to help you manage the anxiety that accompanies specific phobias. For example:
Professional treatment can help you overcome your specific phobia or manage it effectively so you don't become a prisoner to your fears. You can also take some steps on your own:
Helping your child cope with fears
As a parent, there's a lot you can do to help your child cope with fears. For example:
If your child's fears seem to be excessive, persistent and interfere with daily life, talk with your child's doctor for advice on whether professional diagnosis and treatment are indicated.
If you've made the choice to seek help for a specific phobia, you've taken a huge first step. You may start by talking to your primary care doctor. Depending on your situation, your doctor may refer you to a mental health professional for evaluation and treatment.
Before your appointment, make a list of:
Questions to ask might include:
Don't hesitate to ask other questions during your appointment.
Be ready to answer your doctor's questions to reserve time to go over points you want to spend more time on. Your doctor may ask: