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A phobia is an unreasonable fear of something or some situation. Many of us have unreasonable fears, such as a fear of small spiders, but the anxiety people with specific phobia experience stemming from their irrational fear is great enough to compromise normal quality of life.

  • You may not love flying, but if you were offered a great job that involved some travel, you’d probably take it. Someone with a specific phobia of flying would likely turn down the promotion.
  • You may not like needles, but if a doctor advised that you get one, you would. Someone with a needle phobia might delay needed medical care out of anxiety about that needle.

People with a specific phobia know that the anxiety they feel, when thinking about whatever it is that scares them is unreasonable, but they can’t control it. The anxiety they feel can be intense – sometimes even thinking about the phobic stimulus can trigger a panic attack.

Diagnosing Specific Phobia

To meet a diagnosis of specific phobia:

  1. The person must have an enduring and unreasonable fear of a specific stimulus or situation. This fear emerges when in the presence or when thinking about, the feared situation or stimulus.
  2. The person experiences intense anxiety when confronted with the feared object of situation; in some cases, experiencing a panic attack.
  3. The person realizes that their degree of fear and anxiety is inappropriate (Children may not realize this).
  4. The person tries to avoid any exposure to the feared stimuli or situation and when forced to experience the stimuli, feels anxiety.
  1. The phobia interferes with normal functioning or the person feels very upset about their phobia
  2. The anxiety produced by the phobia is not explained by the co-occurrence of another disorder, such as social phobia, PTSD, panic disorder with agoraphobia, OCD or other anxiety disorder.

For children, the phobia must endure for more than 6 months.             

The 5 Types of Phobia

The American Psychiatric Association has defined 5 specific types of phobias.

  1. Animal Phobias – fears and worries about animals, such as spiders, snakes, dogs
  2. Environmental Phobias – fear originating out of the natural world, such as a fear of heights or water
  3. Blood or Injection Phobias – Describes fears of seeing blood or of receiving an injection or other medical procedure
  4. Situational Phobia – a fear of certain situations, such as being on an airplane, or in enclosed spaces, such as an elevator
  5. Other Phobias – fear caused by other sources, such as a fear of getting sick

The three most commonly feared phobic stimuli are spiders, heights and snakes.

Who Gets Specific Phobia?

People normally succumb to a phobia in childhood or during the teen years, although adults can become suddenly phobic as well. Children tend to deal with their phobias, in time, but adult onset phobias rarely get better without treatment. Women are about twice as likely to experience specific phobia

About 6 million Americans suffer from a specific phobia. You are more likely to experience specific phobia if a family member has the condition – the disorder is likely passed genetically and through learned behaviors in families. A traumatic incident can also trigger a phobia (a dog bite triggering a phobia of dogs, for example.)

Do You Need Treatment?

A person who greatly feared snakes but who lived in a northern urban center, and who never came across a snake, might not have much of a problem and might not require any treatment.

When fear and anxiety start to compromise the ability to live a normal, happy and healthy life, it’s time to think about getting help.

Consider getting help:

  • If your anxieties about a specific stimulus or situation stop you from engaging in normal everyday or required activities
  • If your anxiety is severe, frequently occurring or causes panic attacks
  • If you worry greatly about your irrational fears
  • If the fear forces you to make changes in your life

Specific Phobia Treatment

The vast majority of people that live with specific phobia never get treatment, despite the fact that for adult onset, 80% of people will never get over their phobia and despite the existence of very effective treatments.

Exposure therapy is the most effective therapy for specific phobia. During exposure therapy sessions, a specific phobia patient will work with a therapist to very gradually confront the source of their anxiety by increasing exposure in steps, over time.

A person with a fear of spiders might over a period of sessions, for example:

  • Draw a picture of a spider
  • Look at a real picture of a spider
  • Watch a video of a spider
  • Look at a live spider in a jar from across a room
  • Gradually decrease the distance towards the live spider

The repeated exposure to the feared stimuli in a controlled environment reduces the fear response.

Specific phobia patients are also often taught relaxation techniques, useful for managing anxiety when it emerges.

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Page last updated Dec 08, 2015

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