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Specific Phobias

The term "phobia" refers to a group of anxiety symptoms brought on by certain objects or situations.

A specific phobia, formerly called a simple phobia, is a lasting and unreasonable fear caused by the presence or thought of a specific object or situation that usually poses little or no actual danger. Exposure to the object or situation brings about an immediate reaction, causing the person to endure intense anxiety (nervousness) or to avoid the object or situation entirely. The distress associated with the phobia and/or the need to avoid the object or situation can significantly interfere with the person's ability to function. Adults with a specific phobia recognize that the fear is excessive or unreasonable, yet are unable to overcome it.

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There are different types of specific phobias, based on the object or situation feared, including:

  • Animal phobias: Examples include the fear of dogs, snakes, insects, or mice. Animal phobias are the most common specific phobias.
  • Situational phobias: These involve a fear of specific situations, such as flying, riding in a car or on public transportation, driving, going over bridges or in tunnels, or of being in a closed-in place, like an elevator.
  • Natural environment phobias: Examples include the fear of storms, heights, or water.
  • Blood-injection-injury phobias: These involve a fear of being injured, of seeing blood or of invasive medical procedures, such as blood tests or injections
  • Other phobias: These include a fear of falling down, a fear of loud sounds, and a fear of costumed characters, such as clowns.

A person can have more than one specific phobia.

What Are the Symptoms of Specific Phobias?

Symptoms of specific phobias may include:

  • Excessive or irrational fear of a specific object or situation.
  • Avoiding the object or situation or enduring it with great distress.
  • Physical symptoms of anxiety or a panic attack, such as a pounding heart, nausea or diarrhea, sweating, trembling or shaking, numbness or tingling, problems with breathing (shortness of breath), feeling dizzy or lightheaded, feeling like you are choking.
  • Anticipatory anxiety, which involves becoming nervous ahead of time about being in certain situations or coming into contact with the object of your phobia. (For example, a person with a fear of dogs may become anxious about going for a walk because he or she may see a dog along the way.)

Children with a specific phobia may express their anxiety by crying, clinging to a parent, or throwing a tantrum.

How Common Are Specific Phobias?

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that about 5%-12% of Americans have phobias. Specific phobias affect an estimated 6.3 million adult Americans.

Phobias usually first appear in adolescence and adulthood, but can occur in people of all ages. They are slightly more common in women than in men. Specific phobias in children are common and usually disappear over time. Specific phobias in adults generally start suddenly and are more lasting than childhood phobias. Only about 20% of specific phobias in adults go away on their own (without treatment).

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