Fear or phobia? Find out the difference between the two and the treatment options that can help you overcome them.

Media last reviewed: 11/01/2013

Next review due: 11/01/2015

How common are phobias?

Phobias are the most common type of anxiety disorder. It's estimated that around 10 million people in the UK have a phobia.

They can affect anyone, regardless of age, sex and social background. Some of the most common phobias include:

  • arachnophobia  fear of spiders
  • claustrophobia  fear of confined spaces
  • agoraphobia  fear of open spaces and public places
  • social phobia  fear of social situations

Getting help for phobias

Whatever you have a phobia of, you don't have to live with your fear. Find out what you can do to overcome it

A phobia is an overwhelming and debilitating fear of an object, place, situation, feeling or animal.

Phobias are more pronounced than fears. They develop when a person has an exaggerated or unrealistic sense of danger about a situation or object.

If a phobia becomes very severe, a person may organise their life around avoiding the thing that's causing them anxiety. As well as restricting their day-to-day life, it can also cause them considerable anguish.

Anxiety disorder

A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder. You may not experience any symptoms until you come into contact with the source of your phobia.

However, in some cases, even thinking about the source of a phobia can make a person feel anxious or panicky. This is known as anticipatory anxiety.

Symptoms may include:

  • unsteadiness, dizziness and lightheadedness
  • nausea
  • sweating
  • increased heart rate or palpitations
  • shortness of breath
  • trembling or shaking
  • an upset stomach

If you don't come into contact with the source of your phobia very often, it may not affect your everyday life. However, if you have a complex phobia such as agoraphobia (see below), leading a normal life may be very difficult.

Read more about the symptoms of phobias.

Types of phobia

There are a wide variety of objects or situations that someone could develop a phobia about. However, phobias can be divided into two main categories:

  • specific or simple phobias
  • complex phobias

The two categories are discussed below.

Specific or simple phobias

Specific or simple phobias centre around a particular object, animal, situation or activity. They often develop during childhood or adolescence and may become less severe as you get older.

Common examples of simple phobias include:

  • animal phobias  such as dogs, spiders, snakes or rodents
  • environmental phobias  such as heights, deep water and germs
  • situational phobias  such as visiting the dentist or flying
  • bodily phobias  such as blood, vomit or having injections
  • sexual phobias  such as performance anxiety or the fear of getting a sexually transmitted infection 

Complex phobias

Complex phobias tend to be more disabling than simple phobias. They tend to develop during adulthood and are often associated with a deep-rooted fear or anxiety about a particular situation or circumstance.

Two common complex phobias are:

  • agoraphobia
  • social phobia

Agoraphobia is often thought of as a fear of open spaces, but it's much more complex than this.

Someone with agoraphobia will feel anxious about being in a place or situation where escaping may be difficult if they have a panic attack.

The anxiety usually results in the person avoiding situations such as:

  • being alone
  • being in crowded places, such as busy restaurants or supermarkets
  • travelling on public transport

Read more about agoraphobia

Social phobia, also known as social anxiety disorder, centres around feeling anxious in social situations.

If you have a social phobia, you might be afraid of speaking in front of people for fear of embarrassing yourself and being humiliated in public.

In severe cases, this can become debilitating and may prevent you from carrying out everyday activities, such as eating out or meeting friends.

Read more about social phobia.

What causes phobias?

Phobias do not have a single cause, but there are a number of associated factors. For example:

  • a phobia may be associated with a particular incident or trauma
  • a phobia may be a learned response that a person develops early in life from a parent or sibling (brother or sister)
  • genetics may play a role – there's evidence to suggest some people are born with a tendency to be more anxious than others

Read more about the causes of phobias.

Diagnosing phobias

Phobias aren't usually formally diagnosed. Most people with a phobia are fully aware of the problem.

A person will sometimes choose to live with a phobia, taking great care to avoid the object or situation they're afraid of. However, if you have a phobia, continually trying to avoid what you're afraid of will make the situation worse.

Therefore, you should seek help from your GP, who may refer you to a specialist with expertise in behavioural therapy, such as a psychologist.

Read more about diagnosing phobias.

Treating phobias

Almost all phobias can be successfully treated and cured.

Simple phobias can be treated through gradual exposure to the object, animal, place or situation that causes fear and anxiety. This is known as desensitisation or self-exposure therapy.

You could try these methods with the help of a professional or as part of a self-help programme.

Treating complex phobias often takes longer and involves talking therapies, such as counsellingpsychotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Medication isn't usually used to treat phobias. However, it's sometimes prescribed to help people cope with the effects of anxiety. Medications that may be used include: 

Read more about how phobias are treated.

Page last reviewed: 24/02/2014

Next review due: 24/02/2016


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The 10 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Tazzzio said on 19 June 2014

I'm 24 and having a phobia has ruined the last few years! I'm scared of getting sick or not protecting someone around me and they will get sick! I'm on medication and want a child soon but don't think I'll cope off the medication, I'm so scared of blood even my own I wipe things down all the time panic when someone has a cut on them! I even went to a psychologist and stopped going because I had such panic attacks before going because I was worried because I never knew who sat there before me and why where they there is there something wrong with me now:( iv been for so many blood tests just to calm me but lasts only few months until I panic again? Can somebody help me will hypnotherapy work? I battle to go anywhere

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MissDaisymay said on 29 September 2013

I have suffered now for 14 years of a phobia of travelling. I am not only scared of flying but I hate the prospect of leaving my home. I can just about go out of London as I know I can easily go back home if needed but I haven't been abroad now for 2 years. I would love to go away and it deeply saddens me. I have booked tickets twice now to go away and at the last minute I have pulled out. I hate the thought of packing my life away in a suitcase,leaving my comfort zone, waiting in an airport for what seems like forever and then being stuck on a plane. I have had hypnotherapy which was a waste of money as I was told I would definitely be cured which of course I have not been and I've also had CBT. I am out of ideas as nothing seems to work and I feel my situation is getting worse instead of better. I a wasting my life by not allowing myself to go away and I know it's only my thoughts that control me but I cant change them. I am at the end of my tether and so upset, please can anyone help me or do you know of anyone who had this same issue who is now better?
Thank you.

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jackieh47 said on 02 May 2013

I started with a phobia approx 5 years ago, prior to this i used to get public transport about 3 times a week, go out with friends, but then a situation happened that involved my daughter and i took the "if i dont see, it wont hurt" approach, big mistake coz i stayed home and then the days led to weeks, the weeks led to months and then i never dared go out my house, when shopping day arrived i made excuses althow i knew i was doin it i couldnt help myself, i then became carer for my grandson in 2007 and that was a very difficult hurdle becoz i knew if i didnt take him to the clinic ect i would be neglecting his needs, it took me days to mentally prepare for any outing i had to do with him, iwould give anything to be able to go out properly again, the furthest i do go now is to school and back to ensure my grandson keeps his attendance, i am petrefied of public transport, the thort of catching a bus has me in a state of panic, tears and even hyperventaling, people who have not experienced agraphobia, anxiety ect dont understand, its completely ruined my life, i no longer have many friends, i haven't been out for the 5 years my safe zone is my bedroom, how can i get back to normality, its made me depressed and i feel worthless, life threw a window is awful....:(

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RIPLEY4 said on 14 January 2013

I have a phobia called 'tocophobia'. I have primary tocophobia and I am 15 years old. Currently I am a virgin but I have an implanon (form of contreception) but even so I think I may be pregnant. It is possible to become pregnant without having sex. I dont know what to do, this worry is taking over my life. Someone help me.

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User631550 said on 08 January 2012

I feel so sad reading the above. As a hypnotherapist I regularly treat people who suffer from phobias and often one session is enough to eliminate the phobia completely. This is 'simple' phobias. Social phobias do take longer but still respond well.

So if you suffer from a phobia do find a well qualified hypnotherapist near you. As Paul McKenna says 'No one should have to suffer with a phobia.'

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User611082 said on 30 October 2011

It saddens me to hear of people who have lived with phobias for many years. That used to be me. I had a fear of both heights, and deep water, both for over 25 years.

Once they were cured it changed my life and career choices dramatically. It also increased my confidence in other areas of my life, and I seem like a different person looking back on it now.

It irritates me though when I see people making categoric assertions that there is only one way to do things. In my case the cure took about 15 minutes and has thus far proved permanent (around 8-9 years ago).

Many therapies work, and probably for different reasons, and I certainly don't assert that what worked for me will do so for everyone. I was so impressed however, that I have started helping others.

I suggest you consider seeking out NLP practitioners who understand the Fast Phobia Cure technique, or Time Line Therapy, or some of the percussive techniques, as one of these may work for you as well. Simple phobias appear to have a common trigger, generally in childhood, and all we have to do is to relearn the experience in a way that is helpful to our brain, and not harmful to us. It sounds simple, and for many people it is exactly that.

I'm in danger of getting a comment removed - but I think it should be available on the NHS!

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EmmaHope88 said on 27 June 2011

I've had a phobia of injections since the age of 4 and desperately need help. I've tried talking to my GP but I was brushed off with the comment "You'll grow out of it." I am now 23 and the phobia is worse than ever and I am desperate to be rid of it but I cannot afford to pay for treatment. Does anyone know what I can do? I'm behind on immunisations, have possible Lupus but cannot do the blood tests and live in constant fear of somehow having to have an injection. Please help!

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PChris said on 06 December 2010

I have a phobia of slipping - on anything that is or looks slippery so at the moment I am really finding the ice and snow difficult. Has anyone got any suggestions please? I can't seem to find any help in the Chichester area and do not want to undergo hypnotherapy.

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petsan said on 25 April 2010

I have suffered from a vomiting phobia since I was about 8 I am now 65 I have had one child and I have 2 grandsons whom I have looked after but was on edge all the time in case they were ill. This phobia has ruined my life and the awful part is that I have let it I did try treatment but it didn't do any good. Along with this phobia I have also suffered from being frightened of going to the toilet I have taken Lomotil for over 25 years I have to take them before I leave home because I cannot even think about using public toilets. My husband and I go away in our caravan and I take Lomotil all the time I am away I know it's not foing me any good but I cannot tell the doctor in case he takes the tabs off me. Anyone out there with any advice?

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Joshua_David said on 13 May 2009

Phobias are usually brought about by painful experiences in the past that have traumatized you so much that after you experienced it, you would try as hard as you can to avoid such situations. But when you do get to encounter these that remind you of your phobia, you would surely panic where you experienced heightened sensations like upset stomach and tremors.

The only way way for you to be able to truly overcome your phobias is to change your self-image. Assess how you reacted to your past experiences and your beliefs that other people inculcated in you. If you reacted to them negatively, it's highly likely that you don't feel well enough about yourself and this prevents you to do what you really wanted to do.

If you are able to create an adequate, realistic self-image to replace that distorted one, then, you would be able to overcome depression. At the same time, you need to use your creative imagination to examine how you are going to live in the present and anticipate the future. Set up realistic goals for yourself through the power of your imagination. Always remember your past successes and how you felt during those times, especially when you are feeling down, so that you would have the courage, confidence, strength and determination to achieve whatever you want to achieve. Also, never dwell on your mistakes. Rather, learn from them and move on knowing that you are wiser and ready to go about your life in a better way, doing everything that you can in order to succeed.

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