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Anxiety & Panic Disorders Health Center

Understanding Phobias -- the Basics

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What Are Phobias?

Phobias are irrational and disabling fears that produce a compelling desire to avoid the dreaded object or situation. A phobic person understands that the fear is excessive or groundless. But the effort to resist it only brings more anxiety.

Phobias often begin in childhood. People who suffer from phobias often fear a specific thing, such as germs, bugs, school, dentists, driving, water, balloons, snakes, high places (acrophobia), or enclosed spaces (claustrophobia). The fear is usually not of the object itself but of some dire outcome, such as falling from an airplane.  

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Someone with agoraphobia suffers multiple fears that have three main themes: fear of leaving home, of being alone, and of being in a situation where one cannot suddenly leave or obtain help. When fear is at its peak, the agoraphobic may go to almost any lengths to avoid leaving home.

In social phobia, a person's central fear is of being humiliated in public. People with this kind of phobia may even balk at eating in a restaurant. They avoid public speaking, parties, and public restrooms. Such situations and places may bring blushing, palpitations, sweating, tremors, stuttering, or faintness. 

A person whose phobia is left untreated may become withdrawn, depressed, and socially incapacitated. Fortunately, there are treatments for phobias.

What Causes Phobias?

Some specific phobias can be explained as fear responses to early traumatic events, such as an attack or bite by a dog, but the majority have no obvious cause. Most develop when an underlying fear or conflict is transferred to something completely unrelated. Agoraphobia may develop in response to repeated panic attacks. Symptoms of social phobia may develop early in childhood, but the true cause is unknown.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on April 12, 2014

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