Specific phobias

What are specific phobias?

Concern or fear about certain situations, activities, animals or objects is not uncommon. Many people feel anxious when faced with a snake or spider, heights, or travelling by plane. Fear is a rational response to situations that can pose a threat to our safety.

However, some people react to objects, activities or situations (the phobic stimulus) by imagining or irrationally exaggerating the danger. Their feelings of panic, fear or terror are completely out of proportion to the actual threat. Sometimes the mere thought of the phobic stimulus, or the sight of it on TV, is enough to cause a reaction. These types of excessive reactions may be indicative of a specific phobia.

People with specific phobias are often well aware that their fears are exaggerated or irrational, but feel that their anxious reaction is automatic or uncontrollable. Specific phobias are often associated with panic attacks, during which the person experiences overwhelming physical sensations that may include a pounding heart, choking, nausea, faintness, dizziness, chest pain, hot or cold flushes and perspiration.

What are the signs and symptoms of specific phobias?

You may have a specific phobia if you:

  • have a persistent, excessive and unreasonable fear of a specific object, activity or situation, e.g. heights, the sight of blood or encountering a dog.
  • avoid situations where you may have to face the phobic stimulus, e.g. not walking down a street where there may be a dog. If the situation is unavoidable, you're likely to feel high levels of distress.
  • find that the anxiety or avoidance associated with such situations makes it difficult to go about daily life (e.g. interferes with working, studying or seeing friends and family).
  • the anxiety and avoidance are persistent and have been present for at least 6 months or more

Specific phobias are generally divided into the following categories:

  • Animal type: fear that relates to animals or insects (e.g. fear of dogs or spiders).
  • Natural environment type: fear associated with the natural environment (e.g. fear of thunder or heights).
  • Blood/injection/injury type: fear associated with invasive medical procedures (e.g. injections), or with seeing blood or injury.
  • Situational type: fear of specific situations (e.g. elevators, bridges or driving).
  • Other: any other specific phobias (e.g. fear of choking, fear of vomiting).

You can have more than one type of specific phobia. Other specific phobias, such as the fear of public speaking, are more related to social phobia. Social phobia is a condition where people are overly concerned about how they appear to others.

Symptom checklist 

Have you felt very nervous when faced with a specific object or situation? For example:

  • flying on an aeroplane
  • being exposed to heights
  • going near an animal
  • receiving an injection

Have you avoided a situation because of your phobia? For example, have you:

  • not gone to certain places
  • changed work patterns
  • avoided health check-ups
  • found it hard to go about your daily life (e.g. working, studying or seeing friends and family) because you are trying to avoid such situations?

If you have answered yes, you may be experiencing a specific phobia​.

How common are specific phobias and who experiences them?

The first symptoms of specific phobias usually arise in childhood or early adolescence.

Children experience a number of common fears as they grow up. These include things like loud noises and strangers (infancy), imaginary creatures and the dark (preschool), natural disasters and animals (early primary school) and illness and death (upper primary school).

Learning to manage these fears is a normal part of growing up. Nevertheless, children, even young children, can develop specific phobias and can even experience panic attacks. Children are more likely to develop specific phobias than other anxiety disorders and are often not aware that their fears are irrational or exaggerated.

What causes specific phobias?

Several factors are likely to increase your risk of developing a specific phobia. These include:

  • Temperament – A tendency to inhibition is common to many anxiety conditions.
  • A family history of mental health conditions – Specific phobias, such as animal phobias, may run in the family, in part due to a genetic predisposition. Traumatic experiences – If you've witnessed or experienced a traumatic event (e.g. being bitten by an animal or trapped in an enclosed space), you may feel extremely fearful of situations or objects associated with the event afterwards.

What treatments are available for specific phobias?

Phobias are treatable and seeking professional support is the first step towards recovery. Psychological treatments will generally be the first line of treatment. In some severe cases, medication can also be effective.