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Most of us have things we’re afraid of that make us briefly anxious. Having a phobia is very different. It involves having an extreme, overpowering and persistent fear of a specific object or situation that’s out of proportion with the actual danger it poses.

Phobias can develop around a wide range of contexts such as flying, going to the dentist, being in spaces that are difficult to exit, encountering specific animals, and also in response to a wide array of objects, such as needles, vomit or blood, or even seemingly harmless objects too.

Specific phobias are among the most common anxiety disorders, and not all phobias need treatment. But if a specific phobia affects your daily life, several therapies are available that can help you work through and overcome your fears — often permanently.


Different types of phobias

     There are 5 different types of specific phobias:

  • Situational phobias – for example, flying, or being in enclosed spaces
  • Animal phobias – for example, dogs or spiders
  • Natural environment phobias – for example, swimming in the sea, heights, and large spaces
  • Blood-Injection-Injury phobias – for example seeing blood, or receiving an injection
  • Other phobias – everything else, for example, loud sounds, clowns, situations that may lead to choking, vomiting, or contracting an illness

Symptoms of phobias

People with a phobia will experience an intense sense of dread or panic when faced with the subject of their fear.
These fears can become all-consuming and have a big impact on the way someone functions in their everyday life, both at work and in personal relationships.

  • Racing heart
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Dry mouth
  • Diarrhoea
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Feeling like you are choking
  • Faster breathing or difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • The regular overestimation of the risk of harm and associated sense of threat posed by a specific situation or object 
  • The underestimation of your ability to cope with the identified threat
  • Feeling overwhelmed by anxiety or fear of a specific object or situation
  • Knowing that your fear is not logical, but not being able to control it
  • Anticipatory anxiety: becoming nervous ahead of time about being in certain situations or coming into contact with the object of your phobia
  • Worsening anxiety as the situation or object gets closer to you in time or physical proximity
  • Doing everything possible to avoid the object or situation or enduring it with great distress
  • In children, tantrums, clinging, crying, or refusing to leave a parent's side or approach their fear

What causes a phobia?

The precise causes of specific phobias are still unclear, but they may develop as a result of having a traumatic experience or panic attack related to a specific object or situation.

For example, a phobia of dogs could have been caused by a frightening experience you had with a dog, such as being chased or bitten. It can also occur from having witnessed a traumatic event happening to someone else. A phobia can also be learnt. For example if a child grows up with a mother who is very fearful of needles, it might be that the child grows up with a related fear. 

Many people will not, however, know how their phobia first began. This is normal and makes no difference in terms of the effectiveness of CBT for a specific phobia.

How to deal with a phobia?

Experiencing a phobia can have a huge impact on your day-to-day life, self-esteem and relationships, especially if you feel consumed by having to avoid the feared subject.

It can be difficult to know when to seek treatment for a phobia. If avoidance of the object, activity or situation that triggers your phobia does interfere with your everyday life, or keeps you from doing things you would otherwise enjoy, it may be time to seek help.

Even if you’ve experienced a phobia for a long time, the good news is it’s treatable. The most evidence-based treatment is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT for a specific phobia will involve noticing and understanding the thinking and behaviour that maintains the anxiety. Once this is well understood by you and your therapist, therapy progresses on to testing out new, potentially helpful ways of thinking and behaving. This will involve gradual steps towards the feared object or situation, always at your own pace and in a manner that ultimately reduces anxiety. CBT emphasises learning to develop a sense of mastery and confidence over your thoughts and feelings rather than feeling overwhelmed by them.

How to support a loved one experiencing a phobia

If you’re close to someone who is suffering with a phobia there are a number of things you can do to help them.

Take their phobia seriously

It’s important to take their phobia seriously. Even if you don’t understand the fear, it is likely causing them a lot of distress and anxiety.

Learn as much as you can about their phobia

Read online resources about what it is. Other people’s experiences will help you understand what they’re going through. Listen to the person about their personal experience too.

Try not to pressurise

It can be important, even if you do so with the best of intentions, not to pressurise your friend or loved one into phobic situations or encounters with phobic objects before they decide they’re ready. Often, the best way forward is to encourage them to access psychological therapy, on their own terms, which will allow them to deal with the phobia through a structured approach they feel in control of.

Encourage them to seek help

Support them in seeking help. Help them arrange a GP appointment and go with them if they would like you to. The GP will refer them to a therapist who will be able to help.


Reassure them that help is available and that it’s absolutely possible to live a life free of any and all phobias.

Start the process

If you would like to find out about other mental health support options available in your area, visit the NHS website.

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