What are phobias?

We all experience fear as part of everyday life. It is a normal reaction to a perceived threat or uncomfortable situation. Usually the anxious feeling subsides quickly once the threat has passed, however for some people the feeling persists for extended periods. It becomes an Anxiety Disorder when it has a profound and negative impact on decisions and daily life.

There are a number of different forms of anxiety disorder, including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Phobias are another form of anxiety disorder. A phobia is an exaggerated fear of a common object or situation (known as a phobic trigger). They can vary in intensity from mild to severe and debilitating.

Some people’s phobias are only apparent when they come in contact with their trigger, such as a dog, however others live in a constant state of fear of their phobic trigger.

Phobias can be divided into 2 broad categories with many cross-links between them. Both generate avoidance tactics in sufferers.

Specific phobias

As the name suggests, these phobias are triggered by specific objects or situations. They can be grouped into several sub-categories.

  • Animal phobias – spiders, birds, dogs
  • Natural or environmental phobias – thunder, heights, germs
  • Body-related phobias – blood, vomit, sexual performance, injections, dental procedures
  • Situational phobias – bridges, enclosed spaces, driving

It is estimated that around 11% of the Australian population will have a specific phobia at some stage. They usually develop during childhood and symptoms can improve as the person gets older.

Complex phobias

Complex phobias are often linked to other mental health issues including Panic Disorder, Depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). They generally form during adulthood as a result of a deeply-stressful or traumatic experience. There are many forms but the 2 most common are Agoraphobia and Social Phobia.


Agoraphobia is the fear being in open or public places such as shopping centres, crowds, or cafes. The sufferer has an underlying fear of having no safe exit or help nearby. They feel an almost palpable, suffocating force around them that causes them to lose focus. Often they develop a full-blown panic attack. With so many possible triggers, the fear of being in such a frightening situation again can lead them to eventually stop leaving their house.

Social Phobia

Those with Social Phobia (also known as Social Anxiety Disorder) constantly worry about what others think of them and fear judgment or embarrassment. Their low self-esteem affects their behaviour so they seem inadequate or eccentric to others, perpetuating the problem.

Other phobias

These include the:

  • Fear of confined spaces (Claustrophobia).
  • Fear of needles (Trypanophobia).
  • Fear of heights (Acrophobia).
  • Fear of spiders (Arachnophobia).
  • Fear of being alone (Monophobia).


What causes phobias?

Many factors can lead to the development of a phobia. For some people a combination of factors may have contributed to their condition. Common causes include:

  • A family history of anxiety disorders. Not every family member will be affected but they all have an increased risk of developing a phobia.
  • Altered brain chemistry. Our brains use chemical messengers (called neurotransmitters) to control behaviour. When the messages get disrupted (through genetic pre-disposition or external influences) they can affect our thoughts and emotions and change our behaviour.
  • Trauma – especially if the person was physically or mentally harmed. For example, someone bitten by a dog may develop a fear of all dogs.
  • Learned behaviour. Researchers believe children can pick up on their parent’s anxieties and develop the same phobias such as the fear of storms or public speaking.

Complex phobias have a wide range of possible causes. Those with Social Phobia, for example, may have had parents who showed little affection, were overly protective or who fussed over appearance.

Other causes include intense stress, bullying or having other mental health issues like Depression. Ironically Panic Disorders can be both a cause and a symptom of phobias. Having an embarrassing panic attack in public may lead to Agoraphobia. Conversely, being out in a public place can trigger a panic attack. This becomes a viscous cycle that can be hard to break.


What are the most common symptoms?

Phobias often involve panic attacks. The physical symptoms include a rapid heart rate, trembling, excessive sweating, nausea or the feeling of suffocation.

Usually sufferers will change their behaviour in order to avoid their particular trigger. They might not apply for jobs involving public speaking or plane travel. They may go hungry rather than eat in front of others or let health conditions worsen instead of seeing a doctor. Complex phobias may also lead to physical afflictions like stammering and facial tics.

For some people their fear may be so debilitating that it leads to substance abuse, depression or even suicide.


What are the main treatment options?

While some may outgrow childhood phobias, others remain affected for life. If you have a phobia that affects your daily life, seeking the help of an experienced counsellor can be greatly beneficial.  They will generally use a combination of approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)Hypnotherapy or Group Therapy.

CBT is based on the premise that our thoughts determine our behaviour. Your counsellor will help you explore your underlying thought patterns and see which ones influence how you react to your phobic trigger. They will help you find different ways to view your situation and develop better coping strategies.

Another approach your counsellor may use is to expose you to your phobic trigger gradually until you become less fearful of it. For example if you have a fear of spiders, you may be asked to look at a photo of one. Eventually you might learn to place one in a jar.


Why seek professional help?

Mental illness can be frightening and isolating, especially if you are in a depressed or suicidal state. Talking to friends and family may help but having the support and guidance of a professional counsellor is usually more beneficial. Therapy sessions are confidential and non-judgemental. Seeking help early gives you a greater chance of overcoming your condition and getting your life back to normal.


Where to find help

Our directory lists hundreds of psychotherapists, psychologists, counsellors and other therapists from around Australia. These mental health experts offer counselling over the phone and online in addition to one-on-one consultations. Many also offer workshops and seminars. 

Enter your postcode or suburb into our search box to see a comprehensive list of the health care professionals near you.


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