A specific phobia is an intense, irrational fear of a specific trigger that may not occur in every day life (such as snakes, heights, spiders, etc.). Social phobia, or social anxiety, is a severe fear of public humiliation and being judged by others in social situations. This is not the same as shyness or being an introvert. Agoraphobia is a fear of situations in which it would be difficult to escape if the person were to experience panic.

These symptoms are common among most phobia

  • a sensation of uncontrollable anxiety when exposed to the source of fear
  • a feeling that the source of that fear must be avoided at all costs
  • not being able to function properly when exposed to the trigger
  • acknowledgment that the fear is irrational, unreasonable, and exaggerated, combined with an inability to control the feelings

A person is likely to experience feelings of panic and intense anxiety when exposed to their phobia. The physical effects of these sensations can include:

  • sweating
  • abnormal breathing
  • accelerated heartbeat
  • trembling
  • hot flushes or chills
  • a choking sensation
  • chest pains or tightness
  • butterflies in the stomach
  • pins and needles
  • dry mouth
  • confusion and disorientation
  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • headache

The most common phobias in the U.S. include:

  • Claustrophobia: Fear of being in constricted, confined spaces
  • Aerophobia: Fear of flying
  • Arachnophobia: Fear of spiders
  • Driving phobia: Fear of driving a car
  • Emetophobia: Fear of vomiting
  • Erythrophobia: Fear of blushing
  • Hypochondria: Fear of becoming ill
  • Zoophobia: Fear of animals
  • Aquaphobia: Fear of water
  • Acrophobia: Fear of heights
  • Blood, injury, and injection (BII) phobia: Fear of injuries causing blood
  • Escalaphobia: Fear of escalators
  • Tunnel phobia: Fear of tunnels
  • Nomophobia: the fear of being without a cell phone or computer.

 What happens in the phobic brain:

Phobias are often linked to the amygdala, which lies behind the pituitary gland in the brain. The amygdala can trigger the release of “fight-or-flight” hormones. These put the body and mind in a highly alert and stressed state.

Treatments

There are a number of treatment approaches for phobias, and the effectiveness of each approach depends on the person and their type of phobia.

In exposure treatments, the person is gradually and strategically exposed to their feared object/situation. The longer they are exposed to the fear without the harm manifesting, the more the brain “rewires” itself that the object/situation is not dangerous. Since “in vivo” (real life) exposure therapy is often not feasible, many therapists use “imaginal” exposure therapy. This means that the person imagines the fear object/situation, which is often not as effective or quick as “in vivo”. This is why Virtual Reality Immersion Therapy (VRIT) is becoming a preferred method of treatment: Therapists can now create the feared object/situation virtually and provide exposure in the office setting which has similar outcomes of effectiveness and duration of therapy as “in vivo”.
Another method often used in phobia treatment is counter-conditioning. In this method, the person is taught a new response to the feared object. Rather than panic in the face of the feared object or situation, the person learns relaxation techniques to replace anxiety and fear. This new behavior is incompatible with the previous panic response, so the phobic response gradually diminishes.
Sometimes, medication in conjunction with therapy can be helpful for chronic, severe phobias.