Phobias: Types, Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

woman looking nervous

It’s easy to make light of phobias—until you or someone you love develops one.

Imagine missing a vacation to Tahiti with your partner because of your debilitating fear of flying. Picture a teen who isolates at home and misses out on formative friendships because of their overwhelming social phobia. Imagine if someone you love failed to get a life-saving medical procedure because of their nervousness about medical treatments.

People with phobias will make great efforts to avoid the very places, situations, or things that trigger their overwhelming feelings of fear and anxiety. Click To Tweet

Untreated phobias are serious and potentially devastating. As a type of anxiety disorder, they differ from rational fears that protect us from danger. Phobias are excessive, unfounded fears that can disrupt daily life, work performance, personal relationships, and self-esteem.

They are also quite prevalent, affecting more than 19 million Americans—both children and adults. They are more common in women and girls than men and boys.

Here’s vital information about this type of anxiety disorder, how to identify it, and what treatments are available.

WHAT ARE PHOBIAS?

Phobias are intensely exaggerated and illogical fears most often surrounding situations, objects, or places. They are different than the manageable uneasiness you might typically feel when confronted with a potentially dangerous object or situation.

For example, you may feel uneasy looking down from a high place or have a moment of alarm if you encounter a snake or spider. You may feel a little anxious when flying or if you enter an enclosed space like when having an MRI exam. These are not phobias.

A phobia magnifies fear and anxiety to an unmanageable level. People with this type of mental health disorder will make great efforts to avoid the very places, situations, or things that trigger their overwhelming feelings of dread. They will do this even knowing they have the condition.

TYPES OF PHOBIAS

There three types of phobias:

  1. Social Phobias

About 15 million U.S. adults have social phobias (also known as social anxiety disorder), making it the most common type. An individual with this form of the disorder has distress and anxiety about potential rejection, embarrassment, or humiliation in social interactions.

They worry people are watching and judging them and are extremely self-conscious. They have trouble making friends, maintaining relationships, and with daily functioning.

  1. Agoraphobia

An individual with agoraphobia fears being trapped in a specific place, situation, or space where there’s no escape or escape is difficult or humiliating. It can also occur in places where no help is available if they start to panic.

Common triggers are being in a crowd, elevator, bus, movie theater, or train. Distressing feelings may also arise standing in a line or being in an open space like a parking lot.

An agoraphobic will actively avoid the triggering place or situation, insist on a companion, or endure magnified anxiety and fear. If agoraphobia goes untreated, it can lead to an individual being unable to leave their home due to their angst.

  1. Specific Phobias

A specific phobia involves irrational and pronounced fear related to a specific trigger, which is usually an object, place, or situation. Some people have more than one specific phobia. Currently, experts have recognized more than 500 specific phobias.

Even though there are so many, phobias will usually fit into one of several categories involving fear of animals, situations, natural environment, medical procedures, or something else unspecified. Here are 10 common specific phobias:

  • Acrophobia: Fear of heights
  • Arachnophobia: Fear of spiders
  • Aviophobia: Fear of flying
  • Claustrophobia: Fear of enclosed spaces
  • Hemophobia: Fear of blood
  • Hypochondria: Fear of illness
  • Ophidiophobia: Fear of snakes
  • Nyctophobia: Fear of the dark
  • Glossophobia: Fear of public speaking
  • Trypanophobia: Fear of needles

 

There are many unusual, lesser-known phobias, too. For example, there’s  hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, the fear of long words (ironically). And there’s ephebiphobia, the fear of teenagers. They may seem funny, but for those who have them, they are real and distressing.

PHOBIA SYMPTOMS

The physical symptoms of phobias include the following:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Tightness or pain in the chest area
  • Nausea
  • Dry mouth
  • Shortness of breath
  • A choking feeling/sensation
  • Chills
  • Feeling faint or dizzy
  • Confusion
  • Panic

Signs of phobias in children may include:

  • Crying
  • Being clingy
  • Exhibiting temper tantrum-like behavior

In addition to these hallmark symptoms, people with phobias may develop or have other mental health disorders. That’s because phobias, over time, impact mental and physical health.

While phobias don’t necessarily cause these conditions, they usually precede them and factor into their development:

WHAT CAUSES PHOBIAS?

There’s no specific cause of phobias, but any of the following can lead to their development:

  • Genetics: If your family has a phobia or other anxiety disorders, you are at greater risk of having one too.
  • Trauma exposure: A negative experience in childhood can trigger a phobia. For example, if you fell off a horse, you might develop a fear of horses.
  • Learned responses: Interestingly, parents with phobias can transfer their illogical fears to their offspring. If your parent had a fear of heights, for example, you might as well.
  • Exposure to toxins or infections: Surprisingly, toxins and infections can factor into the development of anxiety disorders, which includes phobias. Common culprits are toxic mold and Lyme disease.
  • Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs): Like toxins and infections, a concussion can make you more likely to develop an anxiety disorder, such as a phobia. 

PHOBIAS AND THE BRAIN

Brain-imaging studies clearly indicate that anxiety disorders, such as phobias, are associated with biological changes in the brain. Research presented in Neurology Live makes note of studies that show functional differences in the brains of individuals with phobias.

Specifically, increased activity of the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex, and insula—areas that govern fear and emotion—were observed when individuals with phobias were exposed to a trigger.

In phobic individuals who experience an exaggerated expectation that they might encounter the object of their phobia (called expectancy bias), underactivity was noted in the lateral prefrontal cortex and visual cortex. This would make emotional regulation more difficult.

Hence, phobias are not due to a character flaw or personality weakness—they have clear neurobiological underpinnings.

TREATMENT OF PHOBIAS

Here’s the great news: Phobias are highly treatable. There’s no reason to suffer.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been used to treat phobias and other anxiety disorders successfully for decades. With CBT, patients learn to identify the thoughts that are driving the feelings they want to overcome. Once identified, they then learn how to replace those troubling thoughts with more useful ones.

Exposure therapy (a form of CBT) may also be used in treatment to safely and gradually talk and expose (usually with pictures) the patient to their trigger, helping to lessen fear and anxiety in small doses. This is called systemic or graded exposure.

This type of exposure therapy combined with virtual reality has been effective in helping people with fear of flying and other phobias, according to research. Another type of exposure therapy called flooding involves direct and abrupt exposure to the triggers, rather than in small bits over time.

There are also a host of lifestyle practices that support brain function, reduce anxiety, and help keep fears in check.

However, there can be no effective treatment without an accurate diagnosis. Be sure to reach out to a qualified mental health professional for evaluation if you or someone you love is showing signs and symptoms of phobias.

Phobias, anxiety disorders, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

 

2 Comments »

  1. Most people don't take the time to understand other's health complications. It took almost 60 years to find out that I had a single MTHFR genetic variant and other reasons to end up with homocystinuria. I also have double anxiety genetic markers so between all of those predicaments and others, I'm still dealing with multiple chemical sensitivities. Mainly vehicle exhaust so what seems like possible phobias is actually avoidance of getting unnecessarily ill so staying inside our house works better until I need to go out VERY CAUTIOUSLY. I just spent 20 – 60 years trying to find the reasons for the health problems and now working to repair the MTHFR cellular damage. It doesn't help to look healthy when there was definite cellular damage causing fatigue and extremely low energy. I've been trying to navigate through life carefully despite health issues that made life challenges. It hasn't been constant so people saw me enough that they think that I was hypochondriac vs. endocrine issues and MTHFR related cellular damage, energy, and mobility issues to deal with personally. I am normal and have some concerns – for good reasons. I had low stamina through life so I have to be careful. I've had gluten issues that set me up for asthma to work around. I don't feel well enough to be very socialable.

    Comment by Elinor Nosker — April 5, 2024 @ 7:25 PM

  2. excellent article!

    Comment by Douglas Morris — April 5, 2024 @ 8:41 PM

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