Phobia: when does fear start to be a problem?

Fear is part of life, whether it is related to changes in life or things and animals, for example. In general, feeling fear does not cause any great damage, as long as it does not affect the routine and social life.

However, some cases may gain dimensions that are larger than adequate, negatively affecting the performance of common tasks. This is the case of phobias, which can be related to animals, environments and even social relationships.


What is the difference between fear and phobia?

Fear is the body’s natural reaction to dangerous situations. Phobia, on the other hand, is an exaggerated and irrational fear that presents itself before specific stimuli, which may or may not be really dangerous.

Feeling afraid when you see a snake coming towards you is completely normal, it is a way for the organism to realize that it is at risk and must prepare to flee or fight.

However, a person with a phobia of snakes does not necessarily need to see a snake to be afraid. Any object that resembles the animal, such as ropes, drawings of snakes, etc., is enough to evoke a fear response.

In addition, the fear in phobia is much more intense, and can even cause panic attacks and fainting spells.

Some of the phobic situations are really dangerous, however, the response of fear and anxiety that the individual presents is of disproportionate intensity, in other words, it is too exaggerated a response to the real danger.

There is no specific cause for the appearance of phobias. Among the risk factors are age, considering that most phobias arise in childhood, family history, the individual’s temperament and a history of traumatic events.

Although traumatic events can be associated with specific phobias, they often arise without the person having experienced such trauma. This is the case of the person who is afraid of an elevator just by hearing about the possibility of accidents, even if it has never happened directly to them.

If left untreated, specific phobias can lead to a number of complications, such as social isolation to avoid triggering situations, increased chances of developing a depressive or substance abuse disorder, and even increased chances of committing suicide.

Some types of phobia have their own diagnoses and are not treated as specific phobias, such as social phobia and agoraphobia.

These are considered to be an anxiety disorder, as they have anxiety as the main element disproportionate to the danger presented by the phobic object or situation.

What are the most common phobias?

In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there are some categories of phobias that correspond to the most common. Are they:

  • Animal: includes any type of animal, from insects, arachnids to dogs and domestic animals;
  • Natural environment: fear arises in the face of situations in the environment, such as height, storms, water, among others;
  • Blood-injection-injuries: it is related to injuries, blood, needles, invasive medical procedures, among others;
  • Situational: fear that arises in specific situations, such as riding an airplane, taking an elevator, being indoors, etc.

There are other types of phobias, but they do not receive a specific classification. For example, the fear of loud sounds, of people dressed up as characters (including clowns), among others.

Not infrequently, the same person can have more than one type. A person with a phobia of snakes, for example, may have spiders and planes as well.

Some are so common that they are given proper names, such as:

  • Acrophobia: fear of heights;
  • Aerophobia: fear of flying;
  • Agoraphobia: phobia of places full of people, it is considered a proper diagnosis instead of being diagnosed as a specific phobia;
  • Arachnophobia: phobia of spiders;
  • Astrophobia: fear of thunder and lightning;
  • Claustrophobia: fear of closed and / or tight places;
  • Emetophobia: phobia of vomiting or seeing other people vomiting;
  • Glossophobia: fear of public speaking;
  • Hemophobia: fear of blood;
  • Hydrophobia: Fear of water;
  • Nictophobia: fear of the dark, common in children and tends to soften as they grow;
  • Odontophobia: fear of dentist;
  • Ofidiobobia: a phobia of cobras;
  • Thanatophobia: fear of death and all related things (funerals, cemeteries, coffins, etc.);
  • Tripophobia: fear of geometric patterns.

It is worth remembering that these names are not described in the DSM and, therefore, are not diagnoses per se. However, the medical community and several patients end up adopting such names because they are easily understood.

When should I worry about fear?

Fear must become worrying when it presents itself in a very intense and disproportionate way to the danger it presents.

When riding an elevator, for example, it is normal to feel a chill in the belly when the elevator moves. However, feeling exaggerated anxiety, as if the elevator is about to fall, is not healthy.

It is even more worrying when the person fails to take the elevator, for example, because of all this anxiety. This is called avoidance behavior and generally indicates that the situation is significantly harmful.

It is also worrying when fear is caused by an object or situation that poses no real threat, such as a phobia of people in costume.

In these cases, in particular, the person may encounter phobic situations on a daily basis, making the avoidance behavior that may arise from these phobias even more harmful.

What are the symptoms of phobia?

The symptoms of specific phobias arise when the individual is exposed to the phobic situation. Are they:

  • Exaggerated and irrational fear or anxiety;
  • Sweating;
  • Palpitations;
  • Feeling faint;
  • Difficulty breathing;
  • Feeling of panic;
  • Avoidance of the phobic situation (stop taking the elevator, do not go to costume parties, stop doing outdoor activities, avoid going to the doctor, etc.).

How is the treatment for phobia done?

The treatment for phobia is done with psychotherapy, especially behavioral or cognitive-behavioral therapies.

Bearing in mind that the phobic response is a behavior that responds to a specific situation, behavioral therapies can help to modify that response. For this, it relies on a series of effective techniques, such as systematic desensitization .

This technique is based on a gradual exposure to the phobic object, along with relaxation techniques that prevent the fear response. Gradually, the organism associates the phobic object with the feeling of relaxation instead of fear, so that the phobic response is extinguished.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy mixes techniques from behavioral psychology with the so-called cognitive restructuring , a therapeutic process whose objective is to modify irrational beliefs and dysfunctional thoughts that the individual has.

Often, the phobias come from some dysfunctional thinking that the person rarely realizes is unrealistic. In cognitive-behavioral therapy, the therapist helps the patient to identify such thoughts and to contest them.

As people discover their functional thoughts and contest their veracity, they are able to realize that phobic situations do not present real dangers or, if they do, they are minimal dangers, and therefore should not be a cause for such concern.

In more severe cases, a consultation with a psychiatrist may be necessary , who may be able to indicate some medications for the treatment of phobia. Among the drugs prescribed to treat specific phobias are antidepressants and anxiolytics , which reduce anxiety and can prevent panic attacks.


A number of phobias can affect people and have a major impact on routine. However, they have treatment, so therapy and sometimes medications can help rebalance well-being.

Check out other tips to keep your mental health up to date in Minute Healthy!