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Anxiety & Panic Disorders Health Center

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Phobias - Topic Overview

What are the symptoms?

The main symptom of a phobia is being more afraid than most people of being around an object, being in a situation, or doing an activity. Even just the thought of these things can cause stress in people who have phobias. Children show their stress by crying, throwing tantrums, freezing, or clinging to someone else.

Adults with phobias know that the amount of fear and worry they feel is more than the danger of being hurt by the object, situation, or activity. Children do not understand this about their phobias.

Many people with phobias are more afraid of being hurt by the object or situation than they are afraid of the object or situation itself. For example, a person might be afraid of traveling in an airplane because he or she is worried that the plane will crash. People with phobias might be worried about the following things happening when they are around the object or situation they are afraid of:

  • Losing control
  • Panicking
  • Feeling physically stressed or afraid, including having a faster heartbeat or having a hard time breathing
  • Fainting. Many people who have a blood-injection-injury phobia faint when they are around the object of their phobia. For example, a person might faint when he or she has to get a shot.

The amount of worry or fear a person has depends on how close they are to the object, situation, or activity they are afraid of. For example, a person is more afraid of a spider that is on the table in front of him or her than of a spider that is outside a window. The worry and fear a person has also depend on how easily the person can get away. For example, a person might feel more afraid in an elevator when the doors are shut than when the doors are open.

How are phobias diagnosed?

To find out if you have a phobia, your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms, including how long you have had them. Your doctor will also do a physical exam and ask questions about your medical history. And he or she will ask questions about medicines you are taking. This information will help your doctor find out whether or not you have some other condition.

To be diagnosed with a phobia, you will probably have most of the following symptoms:

  • You are more afraid than most people of a specific object, situation, or activity.
  • You feel stressed or have a panic attack when you are near the object or situation.
  • If you are a teenager or adult, you understand that the amount of fear you have about the object or situation is not reasonable.
  • You avoid the object, situation, or activity that you are afraid of.
  • The fear and stress that you feel make it hard for you to do normal activities such as going to work every day or doing grocery shopping.
  • If you are under age 18, you have had symptoms for at least 6 months.
  • Your symptoms don't fit another problem, such as panic disorder.
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