Introduction of phobias

A phobia is more than a simple fear. It develops when a person begins to organise their life around avoiding the thing they are afraid of, whether it’s an animal, object, place or situation.

A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder. If you have a phobia, you will have an overwhelming need to avoid all contact with the source of your anxiety. Coming into contact with the cause of your phobia or even the thought of this can make you anxious and may cause you to panic.

If the cause of your phobia is an object or animal that you do not come into contact with regularly, such as a snake, it is unlikely to affect your day-to-day life. However, if you have a more complex phobia, such as agoraphobia (see below), you may find it very difficult to lead a normal life. Read more about the symptoms of phobias.

Types of phobia

There are many different phobias, which can be divided into two main categories:

  • simple phobias
  • complex phobias

Although most people are aware of a phobia, it may help to identify some complex phobias by speaking to a GP and answering questions about your anxiety. Read more about how phobias are diagnosed.

Simple phobias

Simple phobias are fears about specific objects, animals, situations or activities. Some common examples include:

  • dogs
  • spiders
  • snakes
  • enclosed spaces
  • doctors or dentists
  • flying

Phobias affect different people in different ways. Some people only react with mild anxiety when confronted with the object of their fear, while others experience severe anxiety or have a severe panic attack.

Complex phobias

Complex phobias tend to be more disabling than simple phobias because they are often associated with a deep-rooted fear or anxiety about a particular circumstance or situation. Two common examples of complex phobias are agoraphobia and social phobia.

Agoraphobia is a fear of being in situations where escape might be difficult, or help wouldn’t be available if things go wrong.

A person with agoraphobia may be scared of:

  • travelling on public transport
  • visiting a shopping centre
  • and in the most severe cases – leaving home

Social phobia is a fear of social situations, such as weddings, or performing in social situations, such as public speaking. People with a social phobia have a fear of embarrassing themselves or of being humiliated in public.

How common are phobias?

Phobias are the most common type of anxiety disorder. In the UK, an estimated 10 million people have phobias. Phobias can affect anyone, regardless of age, sex and social background.

Simple phobias, such as a fear of going to the dentist, usually start during early childhood, often between the ages of four and eight. Simple phobias often disappear on their own as the child gets older and usually do not cause problems in adulthood.

Complex phobias usually start later in life. Social phobias often begin during puberty and agoraphobia in the late teens to early twenties. Sometimes, complex phobias continue for many years. Read more about the causes of phobias.

How are phobias treated?

Almost all phobias can be successfully treated and cured. Treating simple phobias involves gradually becoming exposed to the animal, object, place or situation that causes fear. This is known as desensitisation or self-exposure therapy. You could try these methods with the help of a professional or by using self-help techniques.

Treating complex phobias often takes longer and involves talking therapies, such as counsellingpsychotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Read more about how phobias are treated.

Medication is not usually used to treat phobias. However, it is sometimes prescribed to help people cope with the effects of anxiety. The medication used may include: 

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