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Phobias: A handbook for understanding and working through extreme fears

Phobias: A handbook for understanding and working through extreme fears

We’re all afraid of something. But some of us have extreme fears called phobias and we’ll go to equally extreme measures to avoid them. For certain individuals, it’s animals or insects; for others, it’s small spaces or large groups of people.

This guide will provide you with a comprehensive understanding of phobias, including how they differ from fears, what the most common phobias are, and what treatment looks like. Jump to the questions most relevant to you or read our guide from start to finish.

What Are Phobias?

Phobias, a type of anxiety disorder, are excessive or irrational fears. These fears might be of specific places, things, or circumstances. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (DSM-5), phobias are usually related to…

  • Animals, such as snakes, spiders, or dogs
  • The natural environment, such as lightning or the dark
  • Injury or medical conditions, such as breaking a bone or getting cancer
  • Specific situations, such as flying in a plane or being in a crowded place

The degree of the phobia can vary greatly. For some individuals, their phobia is a mere inconvenience. For others, it affects their ability to function normally. This depends largely on how often the individual must come into contact with their fear in their day-to-day life.

How Are Fears and Phobias Different?

Fear is a normal and natural emotion that is designed to keep us safe. It’s simple: We feel afraid when we perceive something as dangerous, such as a snake (that could bite us), a car that’s going too fast (that could hit us), or even giving a speech in front of hundreds of people (which could lead to social scrutiny and exiling). 

In phobias, the individual’s fear is out of proportion to the actual danger presented by the thing or situation. For example, someone with a phobia of spiders might have a panic attack after finding a spider in the house while someone with a fear of spiders might scream, squish the spider, and then go on with the rest of their day as normal.

What Are the Symptoms of Phobias?

In addition to excessive, irrational fear, the following are characteristic of phobias:

  • Relentless fear, even after being shown that the fear is irrational.
  • Understanding or admittance that their fear is irrational or excessive.
  • Intense physical and/or psychological responses when exposed to the fear, such as a panic attack
  • Inability to control their extreme fear

The specific symptoms of phobias that one might experience when confronted with their fear can be broken into a few categories. Physical symptoms of phobias include dizziness, shortness of breath, trembling, numbness, sweating, and chest pain. Psychological symptoms include stress, anxiety, feelings of overwhelm, and a sense of no control.

How Many Phobias Are There?

There is an infinite number of phobias. While certain phobias are well-known and outlined in the DSM-5, others aren’t as widely understood or documented. And others haven’t even been named yet! They’re identified and explored by clinicians and other professionals as they arise.

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How Many People Have Phobias?

It’s estimated that 8.7% of people in the US (or 19 million Americans) have a phobia. As with many other mental health conditions, it’s possible the percentage is greater, as phobias are likely underreported. Those who don’t report their phobias or seek help from a medical professional are typically held back by stigma.

If you think that you might have a phobia, know that you are far from alone. There are millions of people in this country and around the world who know your struggle. Most importantly, there’s help available for people with phobias and reaching out for help is not just okay but brave.

What Do Humans Fear the Most?

While the most common fear or phobia in the US is widely disputed, social phobia likely holds that #1 spot as it’s estimated that nearly 7% of the US, or 15 million Americans, has social phobia. However, there are other big fears and phobias that sweep the US — see what the most common fear is in your state.

What Are the Most Common Phobias?

From the never-ending list of phobias, some of the most common phobias include:

  1. Social phobia, also known as social anxiety disorder, is characterized by a fear of social situations. Those with social phobia are extremely self-conscious and worry about being judged by others. They’ll avoid specific situations in order to avoid their fear.
  2. Agoraphobia is the fear of open or crowded spaces. Individuals with severe agoraphobia will refuse to leave their house, causing severe dysfunction. Others avoid specific places that trigger their anxiety.
  3. Acrophobia is the fear of heights. People with this phobia might avoid mountainous areas or insist on staying on the first floor at a hotel.
  4. Pteromerhanophobia is the fear of flying. Many people with this fear worry about the plane crashing, but the reality is that the likelihood of this happening is low. In fact, it’s more likely you’ll get struck by lightning than get into a plane crash.
  5. Claustrophobia is the fear of small or enclosed spaces. These people might feel claustrophobic in tunnels, revolving doors, or even public bathrooms.
  6. Entomophobia is the fear of insects. It turns out that spiders aren’t the only big bug fear. If it’s creepy and crawly, someone’s probably afraid of it.
  7. Ophidiophobia is the fear of snakes. Fortunately, those with this phobia can normally go about their day-to-day life without encountering their fear.
  8. Cynophobia is the fear of dogs. This is another common fear, especially among kids. It doesn’t help these individuals that dogs can sense fear.
  9. Astraphobia is the fear of storms. Those with this phobia most commonly fear getting struck by lightning (though the odds of this happening are rare).
  10. Trypanophobia is the fear of needles. This can be a particularly difficult fear to deal with, as you can’t avoid needles forever.

What Is the Fear of Phobias?

Fittingly, the fear of phobias is called phobophobia. Some people with phobophobia fear the development of a specific phobia, based on their fears. For example, someone who is afraid of spiders might worry excessively about developing arachnophobia. Others, though, have a more general fear of developing a phobia for something they hate or even something they love.

What Causes Phobias?

Phobias are most often caused by a negative experience with the feared object or situation. For example, someone with cynophobia (or the fear of dogs) can likely trace that fear back to a particular event, such as being bit by a dog. Phobias can also be caused by secondary exposure — for example, someone might develop pteromerhanophobia (or the fear of flying) after watching coverage of a plane crash.

Another factor that can contribute to the development of phobias is genetics. If you suspect that you might have a phobia, talk to your parents and other relatives to find out what phobias are prevalent in your family.

How Do You Treat Phobias?

As we mentioned earlier, phobias can be treated effectively. Both psychotherapy and medication can prove beneficial in managing your specific phobia. Here’s how they work:

  • Psychotherapy: Exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are considered two of the most effective treatments. The former works by gradually exposing the individual to the object or situation they fear. The latter utilizes a variety of techniques to help the individual change their thoughts and behaviors related to their fear. 
  • Medication: Medication can be used as a short-term treatment or in specific circumstances. For example, someone with a fear of flying might take medication before boarding a plane. Both beta-blockers and benzodiazepines are effective medications for phobias.

If you have an intense fear of something, talk to a medical professional. They can help you obtain the proper help for managing your phobia and preventing it from affecting your ability to live a happy, fulfilling life. 

  • Writer
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Taylor BennettSenior Content Strategist

Taylor Bennett is the Head of Content at Thriveworks. She received her BA in multimedia journalism with minors in professional writing and leadership from Virginia Tech. She is a co-author of “Leaving Depression Behind: An Interactive, Choose Your Path Book.”

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