Specific phobias

A specific phobia is when you’re irrationally scared of specific situations or things. Fear of spiders (arachnophobia), fear of small spaces (claustrophobia) and fear of heights (acrophobia) are common phobias.

Feeling anxious about dangerous things or situations isn’t phobia. Rational fear is our mind’s way of keeping us safe. 

Girl going on holiday

What’s it like to have a phobia?

Some phobias are more debilitating than others – for example, you can usually avoid spiders but you can’t avoid storms (astraphobia).

Other phobias, such as agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) can become so severe that you become trapped in your own house. Trypanophobia (fear of needles) can stop you from getting important medical treatment or prevention.

If a specific phobia is stopping you from doing what you want to do, effective treatment is available.

Types of phobias

There are many different specific phobias. We’ve listed a few common ones in each type. You might have more than one type of specific phobia.

Animal phobias

Common animal phobias include:

  • dogs (cynophobia)
  • spiders (arachnophobia)
  • insects (entomophobia).

Natural environment phobias

Common natural environment phobias include:

  • thunder and lightning (astraphobia)
  • darkness (achluophobia)
  • heights (acrophobia).

Blood, injection and injury phobias

Common medical phobias include:

  • blood (hemophobia)
  • needles or injections (trypanophobia)
  • dentists (dentophobia)
  • hospitals (nosocomephobia).

Situational phobias

Common phobias of specific situations include:

  • elevators (often a form of claustrophobia or agoraphobia)
  • bridges and tunnels (gephyrophobia)
  • driving (amaxophobia).

Other

Common phobias which don’t fit neatly into another phobia type include:

  • choking (anginophobia)
  • vomiting (emetophobia)
  • drowning (aquaphobia).

Social phobia

Specific phobias related to people can include fear of public speaking and fear of social situations. These are part of social phobia, often called social anxiety.

Social anxiety is a condition where people are very anxious about how they appear to others.

Learn more about Social anxiety.

Signs and symptoms of specific phobias

Our minds are supposed to warn us of dangers. This is how we stay safe.

Example: Healthy fear of heights vs phobia of heights

If you’re standing at the edge of a cliff with no railing and think, “Careful, I might fall!”, that’s a healthy fear. Your heart might race a little, you might feel a little shaky. You step back from the edge and you start to feel calmer.

If you have a phobia of heights, however, you might see that same cliff on TV and feel your heart start to race. You know you’re physically safe - a long way away from the cliff. But you can’t control your thoughts, emotions and body, which are all telling you to run away. 

You may have a specific phobia if:

  • you have the following symptoms, and
  • the symptoms have lasted for 6 months or more.

Do you have a persistent, excessive and unreasonable fear?

Is your fear healthy and keeping you safe? If it’s excessive, unreasonable or doesn’t go away, it may be a phobia.

Specific phobias are often associated with panic attacks. A panic attack is when you’re overwhelmed by physical sensations like:

  • pounding heart or chest pain
  • nausea or choking
  • faintness or dizziness
  • hot or cold flushes and sweating.

Do you avoid situations so you don’t have to face your fear?

You might avoid:

  • walking down a street where there might be a dog
  • travelling by plane
  • getting vaccinated (if you fear injections)
  • turning out the lights (if you fear the darkness).

Is your fear affecting your ability to live your life?

Feeling anxious or avoiding specific situations or objects can make it hard to live your everyday life.

You might:

  • find it hard to go to work because you have to drive over a bridge
  • not do well at school because you’re extremely anxious about exams
  • avoid going to the doctor because you’re scared of injections.

Specific phobias in children

Common fears for children include:

  • loud noises and strangers (babies)
  • imaginary creatures and the dark (preschool)
  • natural disasters and animals (early primary school)
  • illness and death (upper primary school).

Learning to manage these fears is a normal part of growing up. However, children can develop specific phobias. They’re often too young to understand that their fears are irrational or exaggerated. They may even experience panic attacks.

Effective treatments for specific phobias

Research shows that the most effective treatments for specific phobias are:

  • cognitive behaviour therapy
  • behaviour therapy (including exposure therapy).

Learn more about Treatments for anxiety.

Should I get support?

You may be feeling unsure about whether you should seek support.

If your phobia is making your everyday life harder, we recommend you get support. Phobias are common and treatable but they don’t usually go away by themselves.

We can help you find the support you need at Get mental health support.

Causes of specific phobias

Specific phobias usually start in childhood or early adolescence. Known risk factors include temperament, family history and traumatic experiences.

Temperament

If you’re naturally self-conscious and find it hard to relax you may be at higher risk of developing a specific phobia.

Family history of phobias

Some specific phobias, such as animal phobias, may run in the family. This is partly because of genetics.

Traumatic experiences

If you've witnessed or experienced a traumatic event you may feel extremely fearful of situations or objects associated with the event.

For example, you might:

  • fear dogs after you saw someone attacked by a dog
  • fear enclosed spaces after you were trapped in an elevator.

Supporting someone else

If you’re worried about someone close to you, there are things you can do to support them.

References

Beyond Blue uses statistics from trusted references and research. For a full list of references for all statistics quoted on our website, please visit Statistics.