A Guide to fears and phobias

What is a phobia?

A phobia is an irrational, persistent fear of things or situations. The source of the fear can create a strong panic reaction, symptoms can include:

  • Sweating  
  • Increased heart beat 
  • Breathing difficulties.
  • Light headedness
  • Dry mouth
  • Extreme fear
  • Racing dead end thoughts
  • Nausea
  • Increased urination/bowel movements

In time, just thinking about the cause of the fear can provoke those symptoms. Many people have fears or mild phobias that do not need treatment and do not intrude in their life or those of people around them, but phobias unlike rational fears, negatively affect their lives and moderate and severe phobias are likely to require treatment.

Any phobia is tough! No one likes to experience irrational fear over anything, but arachnophobia has to be up there as one of the most invasive. A fear of dentists is obviously troubling, especially if you have a problem with your teeth – however you are unlikely to encounter a dentist or two running across your lounge wall or lurking under the stairs!

If you have a phobia, or other anxiety disorder, our 'Overcoming Anxiety' programme can help you.

What is fear?

Fear is a built in safety mechanism that all human beings should have – it is natural and can even be life saving.

If we came across a hungry tiger loose in the woods, it would be natural to feel afraid – fear acts as a warning and a physical response to danger. However, fear is not so welcome when it is misplaced. When we become frightened of something that does not pose an immediate threat, or when danger is not even present, it becomes a problem.

Fear or phobia? – The difference

Fear or phobia? That is the question! Many of us would be afraid if the aeroplane we were on was struck by lightning, or if we fell from a high building, however, the fear of these events happening, does not preoccupy our lives.

While a lot of people do not enjoy a spider crawling on their body, an arachnophobia sufferer (phobic of spiders) will be psychologically and/or physically traumatised just by the thought of it. Phobia sufferers have an anxiety disorder that exists even when danger is not immediate or present. It is an irrational and extreme fear.

Some phobias are well known (e.g. phobia of flying, phobia of spiders, and phobia of heights) and some are virtually unheard of (phobia of the number 8, sitting down, even a phobia of chins!). In any case, whatever the phobia may be, whoever is suffering from it, is experiencing a great deal of anxiety and a level of fear that is unreasonable, irrational and excessive.

A phobia can be of an object, an animal, a place, or even a situation and the list of things, people can be phobic of, is almost endless.

Types of phobias

Phobias are categorized into two types: “simple” and “complex”.

Simple phobias are fears of a very defined and specific object, animal or situation. Examples of these would include:

  • Acrophobia – fear of heights
  • Bibliophobia – fear of books
  • Dentophobia – fear of the dentist
  • Pediophobia – fear of dolls 

These “simple” phobias are usually are usually easier to detect and treat. They usually start between the ages of four and eight and they can often, but not always, disappear on their own as the child gets older.

“Complex” phobias can be more difficult to live with because the root of it cannot be pinpointed to a specific cause and they are often associated with a deep-rooted fear or anxiety about a particular circumstance, therefore are usually harder to treat.

Complex phobias include agoraphobia and social phobia; they usually start much later in life. Social phobias, for example, often develop during puberty and agoraphobia slightly later during our teens or early twenties.

  • Agoraphobia is known as the fear of open spaces but, as it suggests, it can be more complex than that. A sufferer may fear all public places: shops, parks, travelling and it can result in not being able to leave the house at all. Also, the sufferer may become very anxious if he/she feels that he/she cannot retreat to a place of safety, usually the home.
  • Social phobia is actually very common; it is (in essence) a phobia of being in social situations. This can be a fear of being in a crowded place like a shop or a restaurant, or it could be a more intimate affair like a party, a pub, a wedding. The sufferer would get very anxious at the thought of performing or speaking in public and generally being at the centre of attention. It is an extreme fear of humiliation.

When a simple phobia is of something that you can avoid, such as a deadly snake, (and the closest we would normally come to this would be a picture) then, although still distressing, the phobia is easier to manage than one of an object that is far more difficult to avoid. Having a phobia of germs or something else we cannot see is extremely disabling, again, an extreme fear of sitting down would have more than just psychological implications!

Complex phobia sufferers would, therefore, find it very difficult to live a normal life. If you have a simple, or complex phobia our 'Overcoming Anxiety' programme can help you.

Why do phobias develop?

It is often uncertain where phobias come from, how they start and develop. Some start for no apparent reason in childhood, some come as a result of an accident, a trauma or an event that marks our life somehow.

CASE STUDY: Take my father-in-law for example, when he was 5 he and his mother were scheduled to be on a flight that, for some reason, they missed. That flight crashed! Since then, he couldn’t even look at a plane on TV without cringing. He has now thankfully overcome this after 60 years! – He was forced to come to England for my wedding to his son. It was only when his fear of not seeing his son’s wedding became greater than the fear of flying that he could face it and overcome. He has flown many times since.

Books on phobias

How common are phobias?

Phobias are more common than you might think: they are the most common type of anxiety disorder.

  • It is estimated that in the UK alone, 10 million people have phobias
  • They can affect anyone, regardless of social background, sex and age
  • The top ten most common phobias in the UK are debatable and each study has a different answer, however, among those that appear in most lists are: Arachnophobia – spiders, Claustrophobia – closed spaces, Emetophobia – vomit, Agoraphobia and social phobias.


The good news is almost all phobias can be successfully treated and cured. The old school treatment of simple phobias was called ”systematic desensitisation”, in which people were exposed to their fear in a hierarchical way (a step by step approach increasing one’s exposure to the fear), ending the exposure once the person became anxious and then start all over again, going one step further.

Nowadays, with the introduction of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), the treatment becomes more intense. Not only the person gets exposed to the fear, but when he/she becomes anxious, the exposure doesn’t end and instead he/she gets taught how to deal with those feelings.

We use CBT and other counselling techniques in out 'Overcoming Anxiety Programme'

Treating complex phobias often involves:

  • Talking therapies such as counselling
  • Psychotherapy
  • CBT as mentioned above.
  • Medication is occasionally prescribed to help sufferers cope with their anxiety, but is not routinely prescribed as a treatment for phobias.

This treatment can take some time and often has a focus on the root cause of the fear and underlying anxiety.

If you are suffering with a phobia that is already, or beginning to, interfere with your ability to lead a normal and full life, and you cannot challenge it on your own or with the help of family and friends, it is time to seek professional help.

Please see some resources below, and remember your GP will be able to guide you further.


Anxiety UK

1st Floor Cityside House, 40 Adler Street,

London, E1 1EE

Helpline: 0845 767 8000

E-mail: [email protected]

Web: http://www.sane.org.uk/

SANEline and SANEmail offer emotional support and information to those experiencing mental health problems, their families and carers.

Zion Community Resource Centre,339 Stretford Road,

Hulme, Manchester, M15 4ZY, 

E-mail: info@anxietyuk.org.uk

Web: http://www.anxietyuk.org.uk/

Information and help for people with obsessions and anxiety problems


Further reading

For more information on phobias, please visit:

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