Phobias - A brief introduction

What is a phobia?

We all have fears and worries and there are different situations which leave us with an urge to prepare for a danger which we have perceived. Being fearful is a natural human emotion, and allows us to appropriately judge the safety of a situation. The difference between a normal fear and a phobia is that a phobia for the most part, is an irrational fear without substantiated evidence to suggest you will come to harm, and a fear will subside eventually and not continually impact the quality of your life.

Phobias in essence, are an extreme form of fear or anxiety triggered by a particular situation even when there is no danger. For example, you could know that it was safe to be outside on a balcony, but be terrified to go out and enjoy the view or even be inside. Likewise, you may know that a snake isn’t poisonous and that it won’t bite you, but you this still does not reduce levels of anxiety.

People with phobias may find themselves in a constant state of anguish about whether they may come into contact with the thing or place that they’re afraid of. In most likelihoods, avoiding a particular place or thing is likely to make it seem much worse than it actually is, and many people will begin to dread normal everyday life activities, leading phobic behaviours to spiral out of control. These debilitating and overwhelming feelings can make life incredibly difficult and can have a severe effect on a person’s life.

Symptoms of phobias

Often the symptoms of phobias can be similar to those of a panic attack. Physical sensations are accompanied by a wide range of feelings, thoughts, ideas and fantasies. Of course, phobias are unique to the individual who is experiencing them, and some may be more or less intense than others, and not always result in a panic attack. Some people will only encounter issues with direct contact to the object, place or scenario, whereas others may constantly feel on edge even when thinking of their phobia.

Physical sensations

  • Irregular heartbeat.
  • Hot flushes or chills.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Feeling as if you are choking.
  • Chest pains.
  • Nausea or dizziness.
  • Feeling numb.
  • A need to go to the toilet.
  • Ringing in the ears or tingling in the fingers.

Other symptoms

  • Feeling out of touch with reality.
  • Fear of fainting.
  • Fear of losing control.
  • Fear of dying.

Types of phobias


A simple phobia is one about one specific thing and will often have their root within childhood or adolescence, and for many people will decrease over time. Below are some examples.

  • Animals of different sorts - Dogs, rodents or snakes.
  • Natural environment phobias - Heights, open spaces or darkness.
  • Situational phobias - Flying or going to the dentist.
  • Body based phobias –Blood or vomit.
  • Sexually related phobias - Sexual acts or nudity.


Complex phobias usually have a more disruptive effect on people’s lives, and tend to develop in adult life. Below are some examples.

Social phobia

It is common to find social situations challenging or struggle around new people due to feeling shy, nervous or awkward. However for people with social phobia (sometimes called social anxiety or anxiety disorder) there is an extreme sense of fear or dread surrounding social engagements or public speaking. It can be linked with a particular type of scenario like meeting new people, or be more general, and be related to being around others in general. These types of phobias can make every day activities difficult and seeking support for from people, such as therapists, who may be able to provide support and understanding is very difficult.


Often it is thought that agoraphobia is the fear of wide open spaces, however it is far more complex. A key feature of agoraphobia is to feel anxious about being in places, situations or scenarios that could be difficult to get out of or embarrassing. People who experience agoraphobia often find themselves worried that they these situations could bring about a panic attack and they would be unable to seek help. The anxiety surrounding agoraphobia can lead people to avoid any number of situations such as:

  • Being alone outsider or at home.
  • Being within a crowd of people.
  • Travelling by bus, plane or car.
  • Enclosed spaces such as a lift.

Causes of phobias

There is no one particular cause of phobias, but there are many different factors which could play a role in their development. I have listed some of these below.

A traumatic incident

For example, experiencing a turbulent flight or flights as a child could develop into a fear of flying.

A learnt response

These occur in early life, and could happen if you pick up similar habits as your parents or siblings. For example, being highly cautious of being clean, could lead to a phobia of germs.

Responses to panic or fear

Having a strong reaction to a particular object or scenario which you are embarrassed by could lead to more intense anxiety or phobic behaviours happening again. For example, as a child you are particularly scared by fireworks, but as an adult find that this is mocked, then this could lead to a phobia of fireworks and the anxiety surrounding being judged or mocked.

How therapy helps

Talking therapies are strongly recommended in the treatment of phobias, and can allow a safe and calm space for people to think about their phobias and its origins. Therapy can involve a gradual increase in exposure with objects or places which create anxiety and phobic reactions. This increase is usually carried out over a longer period of time which is suitable for the individual. Therapy can allow a person to reconsider how they process situations and enable them to found different and more responsive ways to deal with their anxieties constructively. It can also allow people to explore some of the more complex underlying issues which can be a big part phobias and anxieties.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London N6 & NW5
Written by Joshua Miles, BA, MSc, BPC, BACP Accredited Psychodynamic Psychotherapist
London N6 & NW5

Joshua is an experienced Integrative Therapist who has worked with people to develop understanding of their phobias and worked with them to develop techniques to manage them. He has helped people gain understanding of underlying reasons behind phobic behaviours. He also works with loneliness, bereavement and depression. He's based in Shoreditch.

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