A phobia is an intense fear of something that is out of proportion to the danger the thing poses. A person with a phobia might recognise that the thing they are afraid of is not dangerous, but still continue feeling fearful anyway.
People can have specific or complex phobias. In specific phobias, the person’s fear is triggered by a specific thing. Common examples include animals (like snakes, spiders or dogs), situations (like being at a height), or bodily fluids (like blood or vomit).
Complex phobias are more general: they don’t relate to a certain object or a specific situation. The most common are agoraphobia and social phobia. Agoraphobia is a fear of any situation in which the person cannot easily escape. This often includes being outside the home alone, or being in a car or bus. Social phobia (also called social anxiety disorder) is a fear of social situations in which the person must meet unfamiliar people, and in particular be scrutinised or assessed by them.
If a person has a specific phobia but does not come across the object of their fear very much in normal life, the phobia might not affect the person very much. On the other hand, some phobias – particularly complex ones – can cause regular anxiety and greatly affect a person’s life.
Symptoms of a phobia can include nausea, increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, short breath, an upset stomach or dizziness. The person might experience these symptoms even just thinking about the object of their phobia.
Usually, a person with a phobia recognises their fear already without being formally diagnosed. Sometimes a person makes a great effort to avoid the object of their phobia.
Phobias can almost always be treated. When the phobia is of a specific thing, treatment generally involves being exposed to the object of fear in very slowly increasing amounts, while in a safe environment.
Complex phobias (like agoraphobia and social anxiety disorder) may require counselling, psychotherapy and cognitive behaviour therapies. These treatments involve conversation with a professional.