What are phobias?

Phobias are a mental health condition in which an individual consistently experiences intense, typically irrational fear in reaction to a specific situation or object. These fears can be specific phobias in response to a certain thing — like snakes or blood — or they might fall under the umbrella of social phobia or agoraphobia. Phobias are often thought of as a sub-category of anxiety.


Fears, even intense and irrationally ones, are a normal part of life. Most of us have experienced an irrationally strong desire to get away from a spider, or we’ve considered skipping a social event because we’re scared we’ll embarrass ourselves. Some degree of fear can be a healthy reaction to many common situations.

But when these fears become especially persistent, they can get in the way of a healthy day-to-day lifestyle.

How common are phobias?

Phobias are among the most commonly diagnosed mental health conditions in the United States. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that about 12.5% of adults in the United States experience a specific phobia at some point during their lives. The figure is similar for social phobia, at 12.1%. Agoraphobia is less common, affecting 1.3% of adults at some point in their lives.

For both specific phobias and social phobia, diagnoses are somewhat more common for women than for men.

What are some symptoms of phobias?

In most cases, the symptoms of phobias align closely with the symptoms of anxiety disorders, but in the case of phobias, these symptoms are always triggered by the object or situation that an individual fears Some common symptoms include:

  • Intense worry or fear: The experience or even thought of the thing you fear triggers a sense that you are in danger, even though you may know rationally that the object or situation is harmless.

  • Physical responses: You may experience physical symptoms of fear, including sweaty palms, quickened pulse, or shortness of breath.

  • Panic attacks: At times, anxiety responses to phobias can become a full-fledged panic attack, which is often an overwhelming sensation of fear accompanied by strong physical symptoms.

  • Persistent thoughts of the feared object or situation: If you’re struggling with a phobia, you may find yourself thinking frequently of the thing you fear, even when it is not currently present.

  • Disruption of daily activities: Your fear or desire to avoid the object of your phobia may keep you from engaging in the tasks of day-to-day life, such as work, socializing, or self-care.

Different types of phobias

Phobias fall under three broad categories. They are:

  • Agoraphobia: Agoraphobia is generally understood as a fear of being in any situation from which immediate escape may not be possible. This often manifests in a fear of going out of the house and/or into crowded or enclosed places. 

    • Most people develop this diagnosis after having had a panic attack, and then continuing to avoid places where it might happen again.

  • Social phobia: Social phobia encompasses a fear of social situations, especially ones in which an individual might be scrutinized by others and end up feeling embarrassed. People with social phobia tend to be painfully self-conscious.

  • Specific phobias: All other phobias are categorized as specific phobias. These vary enormously, and many have specific terms based on the object feared (for example, arachnophobia is a fear of spiders). Some of the most common specific phobias include flying, heights, animals such as snakes or dogs, and bodily substances such as blood or vomit.

What to do if you’re experiencing struggles related to a phobia

If you’re experiencing symptoms of a phobia, one or more of the following options may be helpful for you:

  • Therapy: Find a therapist who can help you work through your phobia using proven tools and techniques. 

    • Specifically look for a therapist who is trained in exposure therapy (more on this approach below).

  • Medication: Some people dealing with phobias, especially social phobia or agoraphobia, find that anti-anxiety medication helps reduce their symptoms. Though most medications come with side effects, a psychiatric professional can help you manage these side effects and find the most effective treatment.

  • Mindfulness and breathing exercises: Simple meditations can help reduce the anxiety symptoms that often come with phobias.

  • Exercise: Some studies have shown that regular exercise can decrease anxiety responses.

What should I look for in a therapist for phobias?

The two most common treatments for phobias are:

Additional therapeutic options for phobias include:

  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

  • Interpersonal Psychotherapy

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Find therapists specializing in treating phobias near you

Find therapists who treat phobias on Zencare, below. Search by insurance, fees, and location; watch therapist introductory videos; and book free initial calls to find the right therapist for you!

New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.