Phobias: Definition, Types and Features

what is a phobiaAll of us, at one time or another, have experienced what it means to be afraid. Fear is a normal feature of human existence and serves an adaptive function in that it triggers reactions which allow us to respond to danger or threat. At times, however, fear can become excessive, disturbing and out of proportion with reality. Persons who experience such abnormal fear are described as having a form of anxiety disorder known as a phobia.

The term phobia refers to an intense, irrational fear of a particular object or situation, whether real or imagined. The fear is so severe that it interferes with the individual’s daily functioning, restricting their activities and causing much distress. In many cases, individuals experiencing phobias recognize that their fears are irrational but feel helpless to control them.

Phobias are typically grouped into three major categories: specific phobias, social phobias and agoraphobia.

Specific Phobias – These are the most common types of phobias. As the name suggests, they refer to persistent, unreasonable fears of specific objects, situations or places. Exposure to the feared stimuli results in an immediate anxiety response which may include symptoms such as sweating, trembling, increased heart rate, shortness of breath and dizziness. Even the mere anticipation of an encounter with the feared stimuli may be enough to trigger anxiety. Common examples of specific phobias include fear of closed spaces (claustrophobia), fear of heights (acrophobia), and fear of spiders (arachnophobia), bugs and other small animals. Other examples include fear of blood, air travel, snakes, thunderstorms and elevators.

Social Phobias – A social phobia is a strong, persistent fear of social situations in which humiliation or embarrassment may occur. In feared social situations, individuals with social phobia may worry that others will criticize or judge them unfavourably or that they themselves will do or say something foolish and make a poor impression. In these situations, they almost always experience symptoms of anxiety, such as tremors, diarrhea, blushing and sweating, and therefore try to avoid these settings as much as possible. People with social phobias may fear situations, such as speaking, performing, eating, drinking or writing in the presence of others. They tend to be hypersensitive to negative evaluation and may experience feelings of inferiority.

Agoraphobia – The main feature of agoraphobia is anxiety about being in places from which escape might be difficult or embarrassing or in which help might not be available in the event of a panic attack. Individuals with agoraphobia may fear leaving the comfort of home and in extreme cases, may refuse to leave their homes for several years, even decades.  Agoraphobic individuals usually prefer to be accompanied by others in unfamiliar situations and may therefore seem dependent and clinging. Feared situations may include crowded stadiums, busy streets, tunnels and bridges.