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What Are the Most Common Phobias?

A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by an overwhelming and sometimes paralyzing fear of something. Phobias are considered irrational fears because the intensity of the fear is disproportional with the realistic level of risk posed by subject of the phobia, which is usually something that either cannot or is unlikely to actually cause the person harm.

Experts are unsure why people develop phobias, but traumatic experiences, brain chemistry, genetics or a combination of these factors are likely causes.

Types of Phobias

Most phobias fall under a category called specific phobias because they revolve around the fear of a particular thing, event, activity or situation. Some of the most common specific phobias are:

  • Glossophobia: fear of public speaking
  • Arachnophobia: fear of spiders
  • Claustrophobia: fear of closed-in spaces
  • Acrophobia: fear of heights
  • Aviophobia: fear of flying

Other examples of specific things that are the sources of many people’s phobias include water, blood, snakes and thunderstorms.

Did You Know?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, specific phobias affect over 19 million Americans, and women are twice as likely as men to have one.

 Two phobias that are considered separately from any others are agoraphobia and social phobia. Agoraphobia is sometimes described as a fear of open spaces, but that is a misleading and simplistic description. Most agoraphobics have previously suffered anxiety attacks in public or otherwise exposed and vulnerable places, and what they fear are spaces in which there is no easy means of escape should their panic rise. Many open spaces, such as malls, fit this description.

Social phobia is characterized by extreme self-consciousness in normal public and other social situations, rooted in a fear of others’ scrutiny and judgment. Glossophobia is sometimes considered a subset of social phobia, although many people who fear speaking in front of large groups do not have the same fear about social situations in general, and some people with social phobia actually experience greater anxiety in closer social interactions or in speaking to a small group than they do speaking to a larger (more faceless) crowd.

Symptoms of Phobias

When faced with the source of their fear — or, sometimes, when just thinking about being faced with the source of their fear — a person with a phobia can experience an intense mental and physical reaction. Since phobias are a kind of anxiety disorder, it’s not surprising that the symptoms of these reactions are similar to those of a panic attack, such as feeling an immediate need to flee, shortness of breath, sweating, rapid heartrate, and even crying or hysterical behavior.

Someone with a phobia can usually recognize that their fear is irrational, but that awareness does not enable them to control their feelings or reaction.

Treatment for Phobias

Not every phobia requires treatment, but if you have a fear that is significantly interfering with your ability to function in your professional and/or personal life (e.g., social phobia renders you unable to take part in occasions with friends or colleagues) or that is preventing you from achieving a specific goal (e.g., you want to travel overseas, but your aviophobia keeps you from being able to get on a plane), then you might benefit from professional treatment for your condition.

Once your doctor or therapist has diagnosed you with a phobia, they will seek to provide you with treatment to reduce your symptoms and help you better manage your reactions.

Medications such as sedatives or antidepressants can help curb the level of anxiety you feel when faced with the focus of your phobia. Some people have used beta blockers, which block the body’s reaction to an adrenaline rush, to successfully manage their glossophobia.

Instead of or, more likely, in combination with medication, therapy can improve your ability to handle being faced with the subject of your fear. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on replacing negative, irrational thoughts and beliefs with more positive ones, has been shown to effectively treat phobias. Some people also benefit greatly from exposure therapy, in which they gradually build coping skills through controlled confrontations with the source of their phobia.

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