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Phobias can be very common in society, from the ever-present fear of the dark to more obscure fears like being afraid of long words. But what exactly constitutes a phobia, and what distinguishes genuine phobias from uncomfortableness?

This article discusses what defines a phobia, and explains how phobias develop.

What is a phobia?

A phobia is defined as ‘an overwhelming and debilitating fear of an object, place, situation, feeling or animal’, coming from the Greek word for fear. The distinguishing factor, from simple fears, is the intensity with which the fear is felt in a phobia. People suffering from phobias will often try and organise their lives around avoiding whatever it is that their phobia is based upon. In many cases, this causes major disruption to people’s social, professional, and family lives. In the most extreme cases, phobias can even interfere with tasks such as preparing meals, eating food, or lead to the development of conditions such as insomnia and depression.

Phobias are a specific type of anxiety disorder, meaning they can also manifest physical symptoms associated with other anxiety disorders. This happens due to the body releasing adrenaline, as it has perceived a need to fire off the body’s fight-or-flight system. These symptoms can include:

  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Lightheadedness
  • Upset stomach

Phobias are the most common kind of anxiety disorder worldwide. Out of a population of 68 million people, the UK has an estimated 10 million people who have a specific phobia, or roughly 15% of the population.

As a result, phobias are taken very seriously by the health care industry, and treatment is provided by mental health specialists.

However, if someone with a phobia doesn’t come into contact with the source of their phobia, it is still possible for them to experience the associated symptoms and worries. This is known as anticipatory anxiety.

Furthermore, phobias fall into two categories: specific and complex. Specific phobias are more simplistic, oriented around one individual thing. Typical examples of these are animal phobias (such as arachnophobia- the fear of spiders), environmental phobias (like claustrophobia - the fear of enclosed spaces), bodily phobias (like haemophobia - fear of blood- or emetophobia - fear of vomit), and phobias related to sexual performance.

Complex phobias are more disabling than specific phobias and ordinarily stem from fears of more deep-rooted problems. Commonly given examples of complex phobias are agoraphobia (a fear of situations where escape may be difficult), and social phobia (a long-lasting fear of social situations).

What causes phobias?

Phobias can develop at any age, any sex, and across all levels of intelligence. However, some factors contribute to the development of phobias. Often, phobias develop as a response to a particular trauma experienced in life, or an incident involving the source of the phobia.

An arachnophobe may have developed their phobia due to experiencing the loss of a family member to a venomous spider, for example. They may manifest themselves as learned responses, developed in early age from the behaviours or expectations of close family members. A child with arachnophobic parents often develops arachnophobia themselves. Genetic factors also play a role in the development of phobias. Genetic research suggests that genetic factors lead to the development of more anxious temperaments in people, meaning it is easier for phobias to take root.

While the factors above play a role in the development of all phobias, complex phobias have another possible biological element to them. Brain chemistry is suggested as a possible reason that these more developed phobias are able to manifest.

Find out more about issues that can affect our mental health by trying related e-learning training courses.