Phobias

Phobias are strong irrational fears of something that poses little or no danger. They cause you to avoid certain objects, animals, situations or activities. We all have some fears, but a fear becomes a phobia when it is unrealistic and interferes with your everyday life. However, there are things you can do to reduce your phobias and people who can help you with that.

Key points

  1. Phobias are a form of anxiety disorder, in which your anxiety gets attached to a specific object or situation.
  2. Phobias most often start in your childhood or twenties but can develop at any age, particularly after a traumatic experience. Most phobias are more common in women.
  3. Phobias are not harmful in themselves, but avoiding what you fear can have a negative impact on your life. This is particularly true for social phobia and agoraphobia.
  4. Some phobias can last for many years or even your whole life unless you get help with them. But the good news is that if you get help, most people recover from or learn to manage their phobia much better.
  5. Even if you continue to have episodes of phobia, there are lots of things you can do to reduce its effect on your life and overall live a happy and worthwhile life.

What are the different types of phobia?

Phobias fall into three main types:

  • specific phobias
  • fear of social activities or situations, known as social phobia or anxiety
  • fear of being away from home or safety and fear of places where you might have a panic attack, known as agoraphobia.

Specific phobias 

Specific phobias are very common. You may have a mild aversion to something that doesn't affect you very much, through to a full phobia, which will affect your day to day life. Specific fears fall into 5 categories:

  • fear of animals, such as dogs, snakes or spiders
  • fear of the natural environment
  • fear of blood and needles
  • fear of activities, such as flying
  • other fears, such as a fear of clowns.

If you are phobic of dogs, for example, you will feel extremely anxious anywhere near a dog and want to get away from it quickly. You will avoid dogs if at all possible. This happens even though you may realise your fear is unreasonable. Once you leave the situation you feel fine.

Or if you have a fear of blood and needles, you will avoid reading or talking about these subjects and may find it hard to visit a friend in hospital. You may avoid going to the dentist and find it really hard to agree to have an injection or blood test. The sight of blood might make you panic or faint. Away from these subjects and situations, you feel okay.

If you have a phobia of blood/needles/injections, it's a good idea to see a health professional about  this. Rather than learning to relax, which can be helpful for people with other phobias, it will be more helpful for you to learn how to tense up to stop fainting at the sight of blood or injections.

Social phobia

A social phobia, known as social anxiety disorder, is a fear of being judged negatively in social situations. It’s common for most of us to have occasional moments where such situations can feel a bit daunting, but someone with social phobia experiences strong anxiety or panic in most social situations. 

If you have this type of phobia, you feel anxious that you will act in a way or show anxiety symptoms that will be humiliating or embarrassing. This can lead to avoiding social situations, which affects your ability to create or maintain relationships. It can seriously affect your quality of life, employment and career goals. Find out more about social anxiety disorder.

Agoraphobia

Agoraphobia is a fear of situations or places that would be difficult to get away from or get help in. As a result, people with agoraphobia often experience severe panic attacks. It is a more severe and complex form of phobia. Find out more about agoraphobia.

What causes phobias?

There doesn’t seem to be one cause of phobias, but there are several factors that might play a part in them developing.

  • A specific incident – for example, if you experienced a lot of turbulence on a plane at a young age without adequate reassurance, you might later develop a phobia about flying.
  • Trauma – if you experienced abuse in a particular setting, you may develop a phobia about similar places or an object that you associate with the abuse. You can also develop a phobia from observing others going through a traumatic event.
  • Family environment – parents who are very worried or anxious can have an effect on the way you cope with anxiety in later life, and you may even develop the same phobia as a parent or older sibling.
  • Hearing about a traumatic event – if there is a lot of talk or media coverage about a threatening or traumatic event, such as a plane crash.
  • Genetics – some people appear to be born with a tendency to be more anxious than others, which can develop into a phobia.
  • Responses to panic or fear – if you have a strong reaction (a panic attack) in response to a particular situation or object, and you find this embarrassing or people around you react strongly, this can cause you to develop a more intense anxiety about being in that situation again.
  • Long-term stress – this can cause feelings of anxiety and depression, and reduce your ability to cope in particular situations. This can make you feel more fearful or anxious about being in those situations again, and over a long period, may lead to you developing a phobia.

You may not know or recall the specific reason your phobia developed.

What is the treatment for phobias?

Most people who experience phobias find relief from their symptoms when treated with therapy, medication and education, or a combination of these. There are many things that people develop a phobia of, so don’t worry if you have an unusual phobia – the treatment and self-help methods will work for you as well.

Education

Education can be a helpful first step towards recovering from or managing your phobia better. You can start by looking at the self-help books and websites suggested on this page. They can help you:

  • understand how phobias develop
  • find ways of describing what happens to you, including problems that you may have kept completely to yourself up to now
  • teach you about some of the ways of dealing with your phobia
  • learn about how addressing your anxiety is key to reducing your phobias
  • realise that you are not alone – lots of people experience phobias and most of them recover from them or at least learn to manage them much better.

Counselling or therapy

There are trained professionals who know about phobias and how to help someone who is affected by them. They can provide you with support and help for working through any distressing thoughts and feelings you have and support you to make positive changes in your life. For some people, it might be helpful to understand why your phobia developed and may involve processing earlier trauma. For others, this is not important or useful, and instead, the key is to focus on changing your thinking and behaviour.

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), a psychological therapy that largely focuses on overcoming unhelpful beliefs, can be helpful for people with specific phobias. Therapy will involve desensitisation, that is, you gradually having more exposure to the object or situation you feel anxious about. This is a very effective step in overcoming your phobia. Don’t worry – this only happens when you are ready and at a pace that is right for you.

Medication

Medication isn't usually recommended for treating phobias, because talking therapies are usually effective and don't have any side effects. However, medication is sometimes prescribed on a short-term basis to treat the effects of phobias, such as anxiety.

Examples of medications recommended for treating anxiety include:
Antidepressants: selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are most often prescribed to treat anxiety, social phobia or panic disorder. They are most effective when used alongside counselling or therapy.
Benzodiazepines: these may be used on a short-term basis to treat severe anxiety when other treatments have not been effective. Benzodiazepines are habit-forming therefore they are used at the lowest possible dose for the shortest time.  

Complementary therapies

The term complementary therapy is generally used to indicate therapies and treatments that differ from conventional Western medicine and that may be used to complement and support it. In general, mindfulness, hypnotherapy, yoga, exercise, relaxation, massage, mirimiri (traditional Māori massage) and aromatherapy have all been shown to have some effect in alleviating mental distress. 

What can I do to help myself manage my phobia?

The key things you can do to help yourself are to:

  • learn about phobias and how to manage and improve your condition
  • learn a relaxation technique or mindfulness
  • get help if you need it
  • join a support group
  • stretch yourself a small step at a time in confronting your phobia
  • stay connected to others
  • stay engaged with the rest of your life that’s not affected by your phobia
  • avoid alcohol and other drugs
  • be physically active
  • spend time in nature
  • eat a healthy diet
  • find a greater purpose.

Find out more about living well with phobias.

What support is available with phobias?

Anxiety New Zealand Trust 24/7 anxiety helpline phone 0800 14 269 4389 Auckland
Wellington Anxiety Specialists Wellington phone 04 386 3861
Anxiety Support Canterbury Canterbury phone 03 377 9665
Social Anxiety Support Canterbury 03 377 9665
Find a GP or Counsellor Mental Health Foundation of NZ
Grow A support group for mental wellness using the 12-step programme run by people who have experienced mental illness.
Big White Wall

Learn more

The following links provide further information about phobias. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.   

Phobias Mental Health Foundation, NZ
Phobias Patient Info, UK
Phobias NHS, UK
Anxiety Clinical for Interventions, Australia

Online courses

Panic and agoraphobia course Evidence-based online course to do on your own or with clinician support. This Way Up, Australia
Coping with panic attacks Centre for Clinical Interventions. Australia, 2016

References

  1. Understanding phobias Mind, UK, 2014
  2. Phobias Mental Health Foundation, NZ, 2014

Reviewed by

Dr Mieke Garrett is a clinical psychologist with experience in both community mental health and private practice. She works with people experiencing a wide range of difficulties but has a particular interest in stress and anxiety, as well as mood disorders. Dr Garrett has also lectured for Massey University and supervised students in the Postgraduate Diploma in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Mieke Garrett, Clinical Psychologist Last reviewed: 27 Mar 2019