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Anxiety & Panic Disorders Health Center

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Phobias - Topic Overview

What is a phobia?

Having a phobia means you are extremely afraid of a specific object, situation, or activity. Having a phobia about something is very different from everyday worry or stress. For example, most people feel worry and stress at some time, such as when speaking in front of a large group of people. People with phobias have so much fear that it's hard to do normal activities, such as going to work.

Having a phobia includes feeling stressed about being near the object, being in the situation, or doing the activity. It also includes being afraid of the object, situation, or activity itself. People with phobias avoid what they are afraid of so they won't feel worried and stressed.

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There are different types of phobias:

  • Natural environment phobias, such as being afraid of storms or lightning
  • Animal phobias, such as being afraid of spiders or dogs
  • Blood-injection-injury phobias, such as being afraid of blood or getting a shot (injection)
  • Situational phobias, such as being afraid of flying, elevators (and other closed spaces), or bridges
  • Other phobias, such as being afraid of choking or throwing up. Other phobias in children include being afraid of loud noises or characters in costumes, such as clowns.

Many people who have phobias also have another problem such as an anxiety disorder, depression, or substance abuse.

What causes phobias?

The cause of phobias is unknown. If you have a family member with a phobia, you are more likely to have a phobia. Sometimes a person might have a phobia because he or she:

  • Had something bad happen, such as being bitten by a dog.
  • Had a panic attack in a specific situation, such as being in an elevator.
  • Saw something bad happen to someone else, such as seeing a person fall off a building.
  • Saw someone else who was very scared of something, such as sitting in an airplane near a person who is afraid of flying.
  • Learned about something bad happening, such as a plane crash.

Phobias usually start when a person is a child or a teenager. Children have more animal phobias, natural environment phobias, and blood-injection-injury phobias than teenagers or adults. Situational phobias usually start when a person is an adult. Women often have phobias at a younger age than men do. If a person has one phobia, he or she is likely to have another phobia as well.

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