A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder. It is an extreme form of fear or anxiety triggered by a particular situation (such as going outside) or object (such as spiders), even when there is no danger.
For example, you may know that it is safe to be out on a balcony in a high-rise block, but feel terrified to go out on it or even enjoy the view from behind the windows inside the building. Likewise, you may know that a spider isn’t poisonous or that it won’t bite you, but this still doesn’t reduce your anxiety.
Someone with a phobia may even feel this extreme anxiety just by thinking or talking about the particular situation or object.
Many of us have fears about particular objects or situations, and this is perfectly normal. A fear becomes a phobia if:
To live in a world full of fear is not living, it is survival.
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.
Consider getting treatment for your phobia if:
“A phobia is only as big as we make it and only as small as we make it. It is what we choose to make it and it can be beaten.”
Phobias can develop around any object or situation, and some people may have multiple phobias. They can be roughly categorised into two groups: specific phobias and complex phobias.
These are phobias about a specific object or situation, such as spiders or flying. They often develop in childhood or adolescence and for some people they will lessen as they get older.
Some of the more common specific phobias are:
However, there are many more specific phobias.
If you are afraid of something you have to see or do a lot, this can start to have a serious impact on your everyday life. If you have a phobia about something you don't come into contact with very often, this can sometimes have less of an impact on you. However, you may still experience fear and anxiety even when the object or situation is not present, meaning that your phobia can still affect you on a daily basis.
Complex phobias tend to have a more disruptive or disabling impact on your life than specific phobias. They tend to develop when you are an adult. Two of the most common complex phobias are social phobia and agoraphobia.
A lot of people can find social situations difficult, or feel shy or awkward at certain times – this is completely normal. If you have social phobia, you will feel a sense of intense fear in social situations, and will often try to avoid them. You might worry about the social event before, during and after it has happened.
Social phobia can be extremely debilitating and can make it very difficult to engage in everyday activities such as:
You might worry about these social situations because you fear that others will judge you negatively or you will offend others by something you say or do. You may also worry about others noticing you are anxious if you start to blush, sweat or stumble over your words.
Having social phobia can have a huge affect on your daily life. It may affect your self-confidence and self-esteem and can make you feel extremely isolated. It can make it very difficult to develop and maintain relationships and can interfere with your ability to work and perform everyday tasks such as shopping.
“I have suffered from phobias since I was three years old and couldn’t cope with the social demands of a playgroup. I then went on to suffer from School Phobia right through to my teens, then various phobias surrounding college and work, which led to me becoming unemployed, isolated, agoraphobic and severely depressed.”
Agoraphobia is widely thought to be a fear of open spaces, but it is more complex than this. The essential feature of agoraphobia is that you will feel anxious about being in places or situations that it would be difficult or embarrassing to get out of, or where you might not be able to get help if you have a panic attack.
If you have agoraphobia you are likely to experience high levels of anxiety and may avoid a variety of everyday situations such as:
Having agoraphobia can have a serious impact on the way you live your life, and many people with agoraphobia find it hard to leave their house.
Agoraphobia can sometimes develop after a panic attack. You may start to feel extremely anxious and worried about having another panic attack, and may feel your symptoms returning when you're in a similar situation. To manage your anxiety, you may start to avoid that particular place or situation. Avoiding particular situations may help in the short term but it can affect the way you live your life and may make your phobia worse.
Agoraphobia can develop due to a number of different causes, such as panic disorder – but not all people with agoraphobia have panic disorder.
If you experience agoraphobia, it is common to also dislike being alone (monophobia) or to become anxious in small confined spaces (claustrophobia).
Phobias can feel different for different people and the symptoms can vary in severity. Symptoms involve experiencing intense fear and anxiety when faced with the situation or object that you are afraid of. If your phobia is severe, even thinking about the situation or object can trigger these symptoms.
Common symptoms of a phobia include:
If these symptoms are very intense, they could trigger a panic attack. Experiencing this type of acute fear is extremely unpleasant and can be very frightening. It may make you feel stressed, out of control and overwhelmed. It may also lead to feelings of embarrassment, anxiety or depression.
As a result, many people with phobias avoid situations where they might have to face their fear. While this can be an effective strategy to start with, avoiding your fears can sometimes cause them to become worse, and can start to have a significant impact on how you live your daily life.
The sort of treatment you're offered for your phobia will depend on:
The main treatments for phobias are:
** Information in this section is kindly provided by the mental health charity MIND **