What Are Phobias?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on June 14, 2021

Phobias are irrational and disabling fears. If you have one, you'll do almost anything to avoid what you're afraid of. Someone with a phobia understands that their fear is not logical. Still, if they try to squelch it, it only makes them more anxious.


Phobias often begin in childhood. Some are responses to traumatic events, like a bite from a dog. Still, most have no obvious cause.

People who have them often fear a specific thing, such as:

  • Balloons
  • Bugs
  • Dentists
  • Driving
  • Enclosed spaces (claustrophobia)
  • Germs
  • High places (acrophobia)
  • School
  • Water
  • Snakes

The fear is usually not of the thing itself, but of some terrible outcome, like falling from an airplane.

Other Types

If you have agoraphobia, you have many fears that have three main themes:

  • Leaving home
  • Being alone
  • A situation where you can't suddenly leave or get help

When fear is at its peak, an agoraphobic person may go to almost any lengths to avoid leaving home. Agoraphobia may come about after repeated panic attacks.

If you have social phobia, you're afraid of being humiliated in public. People with it stay away from things like public speaking, parties, and public restrooms. They may even avoid restaurants.

Such things may bring:

  • Blushing
  • Faintness
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Stuttering
  • Sweating
  • Tremors


There are ways your doctor can help you get a handle on your phobias. These can include:

Exposure therapy: Your doctor tries to change how you react to what you're fearful of by gradually exposing you to it. For example, if you're afraid of dogs, you may start by just thinking about dogs, to looking at a picture of one, to spending time with a dog in a controlled environment.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (your doctor may call it CBT): In addition to exposure, you learn ways to handle what you're afraid of differently. You figure out how to control how you think and feel about it instead of your fear controlling you.

A person whose phobia goes untreated may become withdrawn, depressed, and unable to be in social situations.

WebMD Medical Reference



American Psychiatric Association. 

Waters, R., Phobias: Revealed and Explained, Barron's Educational Series, February 1, 2004.

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