Phobia FAQ

What is a phobia?

A phobia is a form of anxiety disorder that is characterized by a very intense fear of an object, animal, situation or environment. The fear often manifests as a typical anxiety experience through increased heart rate, shortness of breath and/or experiences of choking, shaking and trembling, sweating, and an urge to escape. Individuals who suffer from phobias typically seek to avoid the feared situation (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, up to 9% of American adults experience specific phobias, and approximately 22% of those, or 2% of the U.S. adult population, qualify as ‘severe’ (National Institute of Mental Health, 2014). Although they can occur in childhood, phobias often have their onset in adolescence and adulthood, and seem to be slightly more frequent in women than in men, although this may be a result of sociocultural gender norms.

A recent study in the elderly population found evidence for the idea that age itself may function as a positive influence on the prognosis of specific phobias, as the prevalence of specific phobias in an elderly sample decreased from 10% to only 6% after 5 years. However, importantly, the same study found that a baseline diagnosis of specific phobia increased the risk for developing depressive symptoms later, and thus specific phobia should be considered a potential risk factor for more severe disorders (Sigström, Skoog, Karlsson, & Östling, 2013).

What are some common types of phobias?

Among the more typical types of phobia are the fear of heights (acrophobia), the fear of public places from which escape may be difficult (agoraphobia), claustrophobia (the fear of closed-in places). Furthermore, people often fear insects (e.g. spiders), animals (e.g. snakes, dogs), bodily fluids (e.g. blood), and places and situations such as highways, tunnels, water, and flying.

Types of phobias have been categorized into four general groups:

  • situational phobias, in which the fear is triggered by a specific situation (e.g. driving on the highway)
  • animal phobias (e.g., snakes, rodents, spiders)
  • natural environment phobias (e.g. fear of the ocean)
  • blood-infection-injury phobias

What are some symptoms of phobias?

Phobias are highly prevalent in the population. Their symptoms can range from mild to extreme, and can include some of the following:

  • feelings of intense fear, panic, terror, dread, or even disgust when exposed to the phobic stimulus
  • a strong urge to escape and avoid the phobic stimulus by any means possible
  • an inability to engage in normal activities because of the anxiety when exposed to the feared object
  • physical and emotional reactions of anxiety
  • oftentimes, the knowledge that the fear is excessive or inappropriate, but the inability to control the intensity of the symptoms

American Psychiatric Association, American Psychiatric Association, & DSM-5 Task Force. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Arlington, Va.: American Psychiatric Association.
National Institute of Mental Health. (2014). Specific Phobia Among Adults. Retrieved from
Sigström, R., Skoog, I., Karlsson, B., & Östling, S. (2013). 1801 – The prognosis of specific phobia in the elderly population: a 5-year follow-up study. European Psychiatry, 28, 1. doi:10.1016/S0924-9338(13)76771-3

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