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What you should know about phobias
We’re all afraid of something, but if your fear is extreme, you may have a phobia. Learn how to tell, why phobias happen — and how you can cope.
Does the sight of a honeycomb or a sponge freak you out? If so, you may have trypophobia, an intense fear of patterns with lots of small holes. Or perhaps you get panicky near deep bodies of water, such as oceans or lakes. That’s known as thalassophobia. Or maybe you have a paralyzing fear of vomiting (emetophobia) or balloons (globophobia).
Most of us are afraid of things — and sometimes it serves a useful purpose. For example, fear keeps you from stepping into traffic and getting injured.
But a phobia is an intense, irrational and lasting fear of a specific thing that poses little to no actual danger. Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder, according to the Cleveland Clinic. And they may be more common than you think. Read on to learn how phobias are different from fears, and how you can deal with them.
Phobias are exaggerated fears. About 12.5% of adults in the U.S. experience a specific phobia at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Common phobias in men and women include:
- Specific animals (such as dogs, snakes or sharks)
- Insects (such as bees or spiders)
- Closed-in spaces
“People with a specific phobia will react with anxiety or even panic when confronted with the prospect of facing the fearful situation,” says Reid Wilson, PhD. He’s a clinical psychologist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and founder of the free self-help site Anxieties.com.
Phobias aren’t rational. Most people who have them know on some level that their fear doesn’t make sense. But this awareness doesn’t help. They believe they’re in danger, and the fearful thoughts come anyway. To cope, they avoid the thing they’re afraid of.
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Fears versus phobias
Sometimes our little fears are just normal human quirks: You’re afraid of the dark, you’re not crazy about elevators, or you jump when you see a mouse.
It’s worth noting that the human brain is set up with an alarm system that helps us:
- Avoid harm
- Stay safe
- Adapt to different environments
Within that system, fear and disgust are emotions that are essential for survival. They’re what prevent us from walking off the edge of a cliff, sticking our hand in a tiger’s mouth or eating food that smells rotten.
But at what point does a dislike or mild fear become a phobia? The tipping point is different for everybody. “The big thing that changes a fear to a phobia is the degree to which it limits your life,” says Jessica R.M. Goodnight, PhD. She’s a clinical psychologist and the owner of the Anxiety and Trauma Clinic of Atlanta.
For example, getting nervous when flying in an airplane is pretty common. “But if you notice that you’re so scared of flying that you’re avoiding trips you wish you could take, or you have to drink or use anti-anxiety medications to tolerate a flight, you might be dealing with a phobia,” Goodnight says. “If your fear is stopping you from living the life you want to be living, you’ve likely moved beyond fear into a clinical phobia.”
(Read about mindfulness practices that can reduce stress here.)
How phobias develop
So how do people end up with a phobia? It can happen for many different reasons. Certain phobias can develop after a bad first encounter with an object or situation. A young child who was bitten by a dog, for example, may wind up with a lifelong phobia of them.
Phobias also seem to run in families, and they are found slightly more often in women, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Other phobias can develop gradually over the course of years, Wilson says. They can be connected to the environment you grew up in. In some cases, people with phobias did not gain enough experience during their childhood to successfully face new, frightening life experiences as adults. In other cases, having parents who are intrusive, overprotective or controlling can contribute to the development of phobias, he says.
When to treat a phobia
Sometimes avoiding the source of your phobia is easy and doesn’t cause problems. If you have an intense fear of thunder, for example, you can hang out in your basement or listen to music on your headphones until the storm passes.
But if a phobia causes you to avoid things, places or situations that interest you, it’s a cause for concern.
Phobias are highly treatable with cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure treatment. In this type of therapy, you are gradually exposed to what frightens you — dogs, heights, flying — until the fear becomes less intense. It can be done in person or using virtual reality, says Goodnight. “Most people with phobias only need a couple of months of therapy to achieve their goals.”
Learning relaxation and breathing exercises can also help you cope with a phobia. (Read more about mindful breathing here.)
Bottom line: If you’re worried about a phobia, you don’t need to suffer. Tell your doctor. He or she can refer you to a mental health counselor who specializes in treating phobias.
Phobia definition: Cleveland Clinic (2020). “Anxiety Disorders”
Phobia statistic: National Institute of Mental Health (n.d.). “Specific Phobia”
How phobias start: Johns Hopkins Medicine (n.d.): “Phobias”