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What is a phobia?

A phobia is an uncontrollable, irrational and persistent fear of a specific object, situation or activity. The fear experienced by people with phobias can be so great that some individuals go to extreme lengths to avoid the source of their fear. One extreme response to the source of a phobia can be a panic attack.

The three primary types of phobias are:

  • Specific phobia—Characterized by extreme fear of an object or situation that is not harmful under general conditions. This can include a fear of flying, dogs, closed-in places or heights.
  • Social phobia—An anxiety disorder in which a person has significant anxiety and discomfort related to a fear of being embarrassed, humiliated or scorned by others in social or performance situations.
  • Agoraphobia—An anxiety disorder involving the fear of experiencing a panic attack in a place or situation from which escape may be difficult or embarrassing.


Being near, experiencing, or even thinking about the object of a phobia can bring about a variety of symptoms, including:

  • A feeling of fear or anxiety disproportionate to the size of the threat
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Excessive sweating
  • Problems controlling movements or muscles
  • Panic attack


Research suggests that both genetic and environmental factors contribute to the onset of phobias. Specific phobias could be caused by a fearful first encounter with the phobic object or situation. The question still exists, however, whether this conditioning exposure is necessary or if phobias can develop in genetically predisposed individuals.

Phobias affect both genders equally, although men are more likely to seek treatment for phobias.

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