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Quick Facts

Phobic Disorders (Phobias)

By The Manual's Editorial Staff,

What is a phobic disorder?

Phobia is a medical term for fear. It's normal to be afraid of dangerous things. Most people are afraid of things like standing on the edge of a cliff or going near a snarling dog.

However, a phobic disorder is when a fear (phobia) is:

  • Unrealistic

  • Out of proportion to the actual danger

  • So intense it keeps you from doing normal activities

For example, you may have a phobic disorder if you're so afraid of heights you won't work in a tall building, or so afraid of animals you won't take your children to the zoo.

  • Being around the thing you fear can lead to a panic attack

  • Treatment is with exposure therapy, where you gradually get used to the thing you're afraid of

There are many phobias, but some common ones involve:

  • Animals (zoophobia)

  • Heights (acrophobia)

  • Closed-in places (claustrophobia)

  • Thunderstorms (astraphobia or brontophobia)

How can doctors tell if I have a phobic disorder?

There's not a strong line between normal fear and caution and a phobic disorder. However, doctors will suspect you have a phobic disorder if you have fear that:

  • Makes you change your behavior to avoid the situation or thing

  • Is stronger than it ought to be compared to the real level of danger

  • Causes very strong fear or makes it hard for you to function

How do doctors treat phobic disorders?

You probably don't need treatment if you don’t often come in contact with the thing you fear. For example, if you’re afraid of snakes but live in a city, you probably won't ever come across a snake, so your fear isn't a problem. But if your phobia is about something hard to avoid, like driving over a bridge, treatment may make your life easier. Treatment includes:

  • Exposure therapy (this helps 9 out of 10 people)

  • Sometimes, antianxiety medicine for short-term treatment of symptoms

In exposure therapy, a therapist helps you gradually get used to the thing you fear. For example, if you're afraid of dogs:

  • You might start just looking at pictures of dogs

  • The therapist helps you stay calm and keep your breathing slow until you're comfortable looking at the pictures

  • Then you might look at a real dog in another room

  • Then you gradually progress to being in the same room with a dog

  • Then you're led to touch the dog

Usually, you need only a few sessions for exposure therapy to work.

Medicines don't make phobias go away. But antianxiety medicine can help when you can't avoid doing something you fear. For example, the doctor might give you medicine to take before you fly on a plane.