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Mental health information and support

Phobias

If you feel a very intense and persistent fear of something such as an animal, place, situation or a feeling, you may have a phobia. There are many different types of phobias and a range of treatments available to help cope with the anxiety they cause.

What is a phobia?

A phobia is when you have an abnormal fear of a certain thing or situation. When you’re confronted with this specific object or situation, the fear can be intense and long-lasting, and can trigger an anxiety or panic attack. 

Fear in response to a threat or danger is a natural, human reaction. The fear brought on by a phobia is much more uncontrollable and may cause you to try to escape the situation. The fear you experience is out of proportion to the risk and it can not be rationalised away.

Phobias can manifest in many different ways and will not always be the same from person to person. You may experience physical symptoms, such as sweating, a pounding heart, nausea, trembling or flushes, as well as the psychological symptoms of intense fear. It is possible for these symptoms to develop into a panic attack.

The intensity of the phobia and how it’s expressed will vary depending on the person and the level of exposure to their fear. It can also start to develop in an anticipatory way, where someone starts to dread or imagine their fear before they’re exposed to it. 

What causes a phobia?

The origins of a phobia can be difficult to determine. Some people know exactly how they developed their phobia. For example, getting trapped in a lift may cause a phobia of being locked in a confined space. It’s also possible for parents to pass on their fears to their children.

Common phobias

There are many irrational fears, some more common than others. Here are some of the most common phobias:

Agoraphobia

Agoraphobia is a fear of being in a situation where you can not escape. This phobia can make it difficult for someone to visit busy shopping centres, use public transport, or even leave their home altogether. 

Social phobia

People with social phobia often have difficulty speaking, eating in public or talking to strangers. They fear they will be judged for their behaviours or actions by others. 

School phobia

Children with school phobia fear going to school. They may be extremely anxious about schoolwork or relationships with classmates and teachers. This disorder can severely delay a child’s learning and development.

Blood phobia

Also known as haemophobia, this disorder may develop after a medical procedure. This phobia can make having blood tests, dental work and other operations very difficult.

Fear of animals

There are many fears associated with animals. The most common are:

  • Arachnophobia: fear of spiders

  • Apiphobia: fear of bees

  • Ophiophobia: fear of snakes

  • Cynophobia: fear of dogs

Symptoms of a phobia

The severity and frequency of a phobia varies between individuals. People with a phobia are usually aware of the excessive or irrational nature of their behaviour but can’t help or control it. 

When you have a phobia, you may experience physical symptoms like:

  • Anxiety

  • Palpitations

  • Nausea

  • Excessive sweating

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Feeling unwell

A phobia often causes you to avoid situations where you’re likely to be confronted with your fear. For example, if you have a phobia of snakes, you might avoid tall grass. This is called avoidant behaviour.

Diagnosis

There are no investigations or tests that can diagnose a phobia. Instead, a doctor looks at a set of criteria. A phobia is diagnosed when your fear is excessive and persists over a long period of time, often 6 months or more, or when your phobia causes you significant anxiety and affects your quality of life.

Treatment for a phobia

Phobias can be treated with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This type of talking therapy is led by a healthcare professional and can help to reduce or eliminate the symptoms of your phobia. Treatment may involve gradually exposing someone to their fear (‘systematic desensitisation’) until they’re able to control their reactions. The ultimate aim is to desensitise them to the phobia. 

In some cases, a doctor will prescribe medication to relieve the physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety.

When should you consult a therapist?

Book an appointment with a doctor or therapist if your phobia is significantly disrupting your daily life. A Livi therapist can help you cope with your phobia via internet-based talking therapy including CBT.

Reviewed by:

Dr Bryony Henderson

Lead GP at Livi

Last updated: