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(Specific Phobia; Simple Phobia)

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Definition | Causes | Risk Factors | Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatment | Prevention


A phobia is an intensely fearful response to a situation or object. Phobias can interfere with different aspects of your life. Most phobias develop in childhood, though some develop during adulthood.

There are many kinds of phobias, which can be grouped into these categories:

  • Agoraphobia —Fear of being trapped in places or situations where escape could be difficult or impossible
  • Social phobia —Fear of social situations and being judged or evaluated by others
  • Specific phobia—Fear of a specific object or a situation

People with phobias don't have any control over their anxiety. Treatment includes medications and counseling.


The cause of phobias is unknown.

Risk Factors

Phobias are more common in women than in men. They also tend to run in families. You may have an increased chance of developing a phobia if you have an immediate family member with a phobia.


Symptoms occur when you are exposed to the object or situation that you fear. Your fear may be more intense if you can't easily get away from it.

Psychological symptoms may include:

  • Having intense feelings of panic and extreme anxiety when exposed to the fear
  • Being afraid that you are losing control, going crazy, or dying
  • Having a feeling of unreality or being detached from your body
  • Being aware that the fear is abnormal, but not being able to control your reaction
  • Feeling the desire to flee from your fear or taking extreme steps to avoid it
  • Experiencing fear that interferes with your daily activities

Physical symptoms may include:

  • Racing, pounding, or skipping heartbeat
  • Difficulty catching your breath
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Sweating
  • Lightheadedness, feeling faint
  • Nausea
  • Tingling or numbness in parts of the body
  • Hot or cold flashes
  • Shaking or trembling

Physical Effects of Anxiety

Physiological effects of anxiety
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and medical history. A physical and psychological exam will be done.

There are no tests that can diagnose phobias. The diagnosis will be made based on your symptoms.


Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment may include one or more of the following:

Therapy will be based on your individual needs. It may be done in combination with other treatment methods. Some therapy options include:

  • Exposure therapy—confront your fear in a planned and controlled way with a therapist. It may begin with thinking about the fear and slowly progress to being exposed to it. You may also learn relaxation techniques. These help to reduce panic and anxiety.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy —work with your therapist to learn strategies to cope with your fear. You learn to change your beliefs and thoughts surrounding the fear and how it affects your life.

You may also benefit from joining a support group.

Your doctor may recommend medication to reduce panic and anxiety attacks. Medications may include:

  • Antidepressants
  • Anti-anxiety medications


There are no current guielines to prevent phobias.


American Psychiatric Association


Anxiety and Depression Association of America



Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada


Canadian Psychiatric Association



Phobias. American Psychiatric Association website. Available at: http://www.psychiatry.org/phobias. Accessed June 4, 2013.

Phobias. Mental Health America website. Available at: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/go/phobias. Accessed June 4, 2013.

Phobias and fears. Help Guide website. Available at: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/phobia_symptoms_types_treatment.htm. Updated May 2013. Accessed June 4, 2013.

Phobic disorders. The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/psychiatric_disorders/anxiety_disorders/phobic_disorders.html. Updated November 2012. Accessed June 4, 2013.

Specific phobia. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php. Updated July 9. Updated March 13, 2013. Accessed June 4, 2013.

Last reviewed June 2013 by Brian Randall, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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