Phobia – What are Phobias?

phobia - what are phobias?

Phobias can be very common in society, from the ever-present fear of the dark to more obscure fears like being afraid of long words. But what exactly constitutes a phobia, and what distinguishes genuine phobias from uncomfortableness?

This article discusses what defines a phobia, and explains how phobias develop.

Defining Phobia

A phobia is defined as ‘an overwhelming and debilitating fear of an object, place, situation, feeling or animal’, coming from the Greek word for fear. Distinguishing from simple fears though are the intensity with which the fear is felt in a phobia. Particularly, people suffering from phobias rather than fears will often try and organise their lives around avoiding whatever their phobia is based upon. This causes major disruption to people’s social, professional, and family lives in many cases. In the most extreme of cases, phobias can even interfere with tasks such as preparing meals, eating food, or lead to the developments of conditions such as insomnia and depression.

Phobias are a specific type of anxiety disorder, meaning they can also manifest physical symptoms associated with other anxiety disorders. This happens due to the body releasing adrenaline, as it has perceived a need to fire off the body’s fight-or-flight system. These symptoms can include:

  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Lightheadedness
  • Upset stomach

Phobias are also the most common kind of anxiety disorder worldwide. Out of a population of 66 million people, the UK has an estimated 10 million people who have a specific phobia, or roughly 15% of the population.
As a result, Phobia is taken seriously by the health care industry, and treatment is through mental health specialists.

However, if someone with a phobia doesn’t come into contact with the source of their phobia it is still possible for them to experience the associated symptoms and worries; this is known as anticipatory anxiety.

Furthermore, phobias fall into two categories: specific and complex. Specific phobias are more simplistic, oriented around one individual thing. Typical examples of these are animal phobias (such as arachnophobia- the fear of spiders), environmental phobias (like claustrophobia- the fear of enclosed spaces), bodily phobias (like haemophobia -blood- or emetophobia -vomit), and phobias related to sex performance.

Complex phobias are more disabling than specific phobias, and ordinarily are determined to stem from fears of more deep-rooted problems. Commonly given examples of complex phobias are agoraphobia (a fear of situations where escape may be difficult), and social phobia (a long-lasting fear of social situations).

What Causes Phobias?

Phobias can develop at any age, over any sex, and across all levels of intelligence. However, some factors contribute to the development of phobias. Often, phobias develop as a response to a particular trauma experienced in life, or an incident involving the source of the phobia.

An arachnophobe may have developed their phobia due to experience the loss of a family member to a venomous spider, for example. They may manifest themselves as learned responses developed in early age from the behaviours or expectations of close family members; a child with arachnophobic parents often develop arachnophobia themselves. Genetic factors too play a role in the developments of phobias; genetics research suggests that genetic factors lead to the development of more anxious temperaments in people, meaning it is easier for phobias to take root.

While the factors above play a role in the development of all phobias, complex phobias have another possible biological element to them. Brain chemistry is suggested as a possible reason that these more developed phobias are able to manifest.

Phobia – Further Reading:

The NHS has a lot of information on phobias, as well as on anxiety disorders in general:

The mental health charity Mind have information on how to support living with phobias:



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