What is a phobia?

A phobia is a disabling and irrational fear of something that really poses little or no actual danger for most people. “Phobia” itself is not a mental health diagnosis. Instead, there are phobias like agoraphobia (fear of being in situations or places where escape might be difficult or help not available); social phobia, also called social anxiety disorder (fear of social or performance situations in which embarrassment may occur); and specific phobias (fears of things such as an animal (e.g., snakes, spiders), heights, storms, airplanes, blood-injection-injury, choking.) To be diagnosable the phobia must interfere significantly with an individual’s daily functioning, work/school, or social life.

What things put a person at higher risk of experiencing a phobia?

Social phobia affects about 15 million American adults. Women and men are equally likely to develop the disorder, which usually begins in childhood or early adolescence. There is some evidence that genetic factors are involved. Phobias seem to occur more frequently among individuals with parent(s) who suffer(ed) from a type of phobia. Experiencing a traumatic event, such as being trapped in an elevator or attacked by an animal, may trigger the development of a phobia.

Can phobias be treated?

Medications are not long-term or curative treatments for phobias. Psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and other mental health professionals all agree that the primary treatment for specific phobias is behavioral therapy.

There is evidence that exposure-based therapy (exposure of the individual to the feared object or context without any danger, in order to overcome their anxiety), by itself, is more effective than most medication alone or medication along with exposure-based therapy.

Another common treatment is called systematic desensitization. This treatment has many overlaps with traditional exposure therapy, although it also focuses on using relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. These skills can be useful in helping a person cope with the anxiety and stress of the therapeutic process.

How does a phobia progress?

Phobias typically begin in the mid-teen years, but even in early childhood. Phobias may arise abruptly after a stressful or embarrassing situation, or the onset may be slow. The course of the illness is continuous and may be lifelong, although it may worsen during stressful times and may improve with adulthood. Likewise, severity may wax and wane with life stressors and demands.

Do people with phobias get better?

In spite of the fact that phobias are continuous and may be lifelong, a significant percentage of people with this illness will experience a decrease in the severity of their symptoms over time, and up to 20 percent will experience full recovery. For people seeking treatment, the majority will experience a significant decrease in their symptoms. A sizable percentage of people who engage in proper treatment will experience a near complete resolution of their symptoms.

Family and friends can be most helpful in encouraging their loved one to seek treatment for this troubling illness. With proper treatment and the support of their loved ones, most people with specific phobias can expect to live meaningful and productive lives and see a significant decrease in the severity of their symptoms.

Sources and Links

  • If you were in physical pain, you’d see a doctor to find out what’s wrong. Your mental health is just as important. Learn more here about how to check yourself, from getting a mental health screening to visiting a counseling center. You can use the anonymous Self Evaluator to learn if a treatable mental health problem, including social anxiety disorder (social phobia), could be affecting you or a friend. Be proactive about your mental health: it’s the first step to feeling better. Take the Self Evaluator

  • National Alliance on Mental Illness.

  • Mental Health America.

  • Social Phobia Inventory. Use this brief 17-question online automated quiz to help you determine if you may need to see a mental health professional for diagnosis and treatment of a social phobia (public speaking, going to parties, etc.), or for tracking your phobia on a regular basis.