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Anxiety & Panic Disorders Health Center

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Specific Phobias

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).

What Causes Specific Phobias?

The exact cause of specific phobias is not known, but most appear to be associated with a traumatic experience or a learned reaction. For example, a person who has a frightening or threatening experience with an animal, such as an attack or being bitten, can develop a specific phobia. Witnessing a traumatic event in which others experience harm or extreme fear can also cause a specific phobia, as can receiving information or repeated warnings about potentially dangerous situations or animals.

Fear can be learned from others, as well. A child whose parents react with fear and anxiety to certain objects or situations is likely to also respond to those objects with fear.

How Are Specific Phobias Diagnosed?

If symptoms of a specific phobia are present, the doctor will begin an evaluation by performing a medical and psychiatric history and may perform a brief physical exam. Although there are no lab tests to specifically diagnose specific phobias, the doctor may use various tests to make sure that a physical illness isn't the cause of the symptoms.

If no physical illness is found, you may be referred to a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental health professional who is specially trained to diagnose and treat mental illnesses. Psychiatrists and psychologists use clinical interviews and assessment tools to evaluate a person for a specific phobia.

The doctor bases his or her diagnosis of specific phobias on reported symptoms, including any problems with functioning caused by the symptoms. A specific phobia is diagnosed if the person's fear and anxiety are particularly distressing or if they interfere with his or her daily routine, including school, work, social activities, and relationships.

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