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What is a Specific Phobia?

By Eric Stolze
Updated May 17, 2024
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A specific phobia is an irrational, persistent and intense fear of a specific person, object or situation. In most cases, the actual threat or danger is not severe enough to justify the high level of fear, panic or anxiety that a specific phobia sufferer experiences. An individual with a specific phobia may do all he can to avoid an object that he fears.

Common types of specific phobias include fear of animals or certain natural environments. Individuals may be afraid of animals such as spiders, dogs or snakes. People with this type of fear may be afraid of natural environments such as high places, water or stormy weather. Flying in an airplane, riding in a car or being in an elevator or other enclosed space causes irrational fear in some people. Some individuals also have a great fear of blood or illnesses.

Patients with a family history of specific phobias may be more likely to develop similar irrational fears. Children typically pick up phobias from their parents, with whom they observe panic and irrational fear related to a specific object. Traumatic experiences and imbalances of brain chemicals often increase the likelihood that a person will develop a specific phobia. Most cases of specific phobia develop in younger people and rarely begin after the age of 25.

Many children have specific fears that do not interfere with their daily functioning or rise to the level of a specific phobia. Infants and toddlers are typically afraid of strangers, loud noises and separation from their parents. Many preschool children have vivid imaginations, and they are often afraid of the dark and imaginary beings such as ghosts or monsters.

Doctors may look for several criteria when diagnosing individuals with specific phobias. An irrational fear is usually triggered by a specific situation or object. Many people know that their fear is irrational, but they often feel powerless to stop their feelings. Children and teens with specific phobias typically have symptoms for at least six months. Health care professionals often try to rule out other causes of irrational fear, such as another type of anxiety disorder or a medical condition, before they diagnose this type of phobia.

Physicians may recommend behavior therapy for patients with specific phobias. Exposure therapy, or desensitization, gradually increases a patient’s exposure to an object of fear and generally reduces a patient’s feelings of fear over an extended period of time. A patient may receive cognitive behavioral therapy to change his beliefs about an object of fear and improve coping skills. Patients who learn to control their thoughts and feelings through therapy are often able to manage their specific phobias, and they may even overcome their fears.

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