Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/27/2022
Phobias are a complicated thing that we regularly misunderstand. If you’ve ever wondered what a phobia really is, we just have one word for you: anxiety.
Society tends to talk about anxiety like the common cold — something we all get from time to time and something that affects some more seriously than others, but generally, something that everyone gets through in due time.
But actually, anxiety isn’t so simple. Rather than one specific illness, it’s a group of illnesses with varying intensity, seriousness and dangers.
And one of the most serious forms are phobias: an irrational and intense fear or anxiety about something.
Phobias aren’t just about an extreme fear of heights, fear of spiders, fear of snakes or fear of clowns — they don’t live by the rules our movies set for them.
In fact, mental health experts have an entirely different way of discussing, categorizing and treating phobias than many of us know. You’re about to learn just how much we’ve been out of the loop.
Phobias are a particular subcategory of anxiety disorder. A phobia is a strong, anxious response to a perceived fear.
Even though they’re sometimes the result of a traumatic experience, these extreme fears are often considered irrational, as they’re either based on a false perception of danger or a realistically low or small chance of it.
People with phobias tend to avoid the things they’re afraid of at all cost because those things can cause severe reactions in the form of panic and unreasonable fear, as well as symptoms like rapid heartbeat, trembling, shortness of breath and a triggering of the “flight” part of the “fight-or-flight” response.
Many of these symptoms may sound familiar to the symptoms of panic disorder, and it would be fair to say that phobias can indeed cause a panic attack.
The origins of phobias are difficult to explain, and we don’t have a firm understanding of what causes them. They can run in families, they tend to start in childhood or adolescence and most continue into adulthood, where they can worsen if left untreated.
As we stated before, phobias are an intense fear based on an irrational source or a relatively low probability of serious danger.
That makes them very different from the things that trigger anxiety in its other forms.
According to The National Institute of Mental Health, the whole of anxiety disorders — including generalized anxiety and panic disorder — have many pieces, but they can typically be linked to feelings of excess panic and worry about things real and imagined.
Feeling wound-up, feeling on edge, having difficulty concentrating, being easily fatigued, being irritable, having muscle tension, experiencing difficulty sleeping or having problems controlling feelings of worry are all general symptoms of anxiety.
But the sources of these worries are not murder hornets and giant arachnids killing John Goodman. They’re common things like health, money, relationships and other common threads across the human experience.
In the U.S. alone, an estimated 31.1 percent of adults experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.
There are several common phobias that are most frequently recognized by mental health professionals.
From social phobia to fear of animals, these phobias have little in common except for the fact that they fit the definition of a phobia — an irrational, excessive fear.
Some of the common phobia types include:
Social Phobias. Fear of social situations, fear of strangers, agoraphobia, also sometimes characterized as social anxiety disorders.
Situational Phobias. Fear of small places, going to school or being on airplanes.
Miscellaneous Phobias. Fear of loud noises, clowns, choking, vomiting, etc.
Germophobia. Fear of germs or disease.
Blood Phobias. Fear of needles, injuries, accidents, medical procedures, injections, etc.
Nature Phobias. Fear of heights, thunderstorms, deep oceans, dark woods, etc.
Animal Phobias. Fear of dogs, spiders, insects, large birds, etc.
These various types of phobias may have little in common, but they represent a collective group of things that, for most people, are not debilitating sources of fear.
By that fact, people who fear them qualify as having phobias.
So, how do we treat phobias? Well, there are many ways.
Our guide to coping with anxiety offers a comprehensive look at some of the most popular treatment methods for treating anxiety disorders.
And with regards to phobias specifically, there’s a lot of overlap between treating phobias and other anxiety disorders.
Medication may be effective at helping your brain balance out neurotransmitter activity that can cause those chronic feelings of anxiousness or unease.
One of the most effective pieces of the puzzle is likely going to be therapy. Talking to a mental health professional is the best way to get the support you need to deal with a phobia.
Mental disorders generally respond well to therapy and therapeutic practices, and phobias are no different.
One form in particular is exposure therapy, which involves a therapist exposing you to the thing you’re afraid of in a safe, controlled environment.
Performance situations, fear of darkness, fear of mirrors and fear of cats, for instance, are great opportunities for exposure therapy.
One effective and common type of therapy that tends to show positive results across anxiety disorders (and other mood disorders like depression, too) is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
CBT is a set of tools to help you learn to spot, respond to and ultimately control those negative and anxious thoughts and reactions, which includes those irrational phobia responses as well.
CBT is just one therapeutic technique — check out our guide What Is Psychotherapy & How Does It Work? for more options.
Whether you’re unsure of or certain of a phobia in your life, the support you can get from psychiatry and other forms of therapy is one of the most effective mental health treatment options available today.
It’s important to talk to someone about these fears. While you may not encounter a lot of examples of your individual phobia in your normal life, addressing the lingering fears is the best way to prevent a phobia from becoming debilitating and changing or limiting your life.
Fear of flying can prevent you from traveling. Fear of groups of people can cause isolation — there are big-picture dangers to even the most “irrational” fear you can think of.
No, you don’t have to handle spiders to deal with phobias, but taking back control of your life may require you to address that persistent fear in some way.
The only thing any of us should fear is not enjoying life to the fullest (and maybe a fear of dentists), so take on your lesser fears today and get the most out of your life — spider-free or otherwise.