Phobia Definition, Symptoms, And Treatments

By: Nicola Kirkpatrick

Updated February 09, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Denise Doster


Everyone fears something at some time in their lives. Being afraid on occasion can even be a healthy response to the uncertainties and dangers of the world. It can help you to respond appropriately when you're in a tight spot. Phobias are something different, though. Phobias can disrupt your life and cause you to avoid situations you would rather not avoid. If you question the intensity and frequency of your fear, learning the phobia definition may be your first step to greater peace and freedom.

What Is A Phobia?

While it's true that everyone is afraid at some time, not everyone has a phobia. So, what's the difference? What is it that makes the one a normal reaction and the other a treatable mental illness? To find out, it helps to start with the simple definition of phobia and related words.

Phobia Definition

Psychologists define a phobia as an intense, irrational, and inappropriate fear. If you have a phobia, your fear is exaggerated and overwhelming. It is a fear response to something that presents no real threat to you, at least not in your current situation.

Related Definitions

The phobias definition is similar an afraid definition. It is a synonym for fear, but with a difference. Fear can be a natural response to a real and imminent threat, but a phobia doesn't have the same basis in reality.

What is fear? It's a part of the fight-or-flight response. Fight or flight is a physiological response in your body to something you perceive as danger. If it happens only when there's a real threat, it's adaptive in the sense that it prepares you to deal with the threat. Your body prepares to flee the danger or stay and fight it. The fear is what triggers the physiological response.

When you experience fear even when there is nothing dangerous to be afraid of, it doesn't stop your fight or flight response from kicking in. The fight-or-flight response also called the acute stress response, is a type of hyperarousal that happens when you're terrified of a mental or physical threat.


The response changes the action of your nervous system, alters your hormone levels, increases your heart rate, increases your muscle tension and increases the intensity of your hearing and other senses.

When you're afraid, you're afraid of something. So, we can define afraid as a feeling of fear in response to a trigger. The phobias definition also includes the concept of a trigger; however, the trigger may not be easy to identify. The trigger of a phobia also comes without actual danger. For that reason, an afraid definition is only a part of the definition of a phobia.

Another fear synonym is scared. When we define scared, we think of it as a fear synonym, but the synonym fear, again, has the same difference from a phobia. Fear may or may not be irrational, but phobias are always irrational.

Phobia Meaning

If you have a phobia, the true phobia meaning is that you structure your life to avoid the thing or things you're afraid to face. Your need to avoid whatever it is your fear is so great that your life can become extremely limited. Your mental health becomes fragile, and you develop specific symptoms of the mental illness known as a phobic disorder.

What Is Phobic Disorder?

The phobic disorder is more than simple fear. You aren't just afraid or scared, but you have those feelings in the absence of any real danger. What's more, the phobic disorder is a mental condition that rarely goes away without treatment.

The phobic disorder is considered an anxiety disorder because extreme anxiety characterizes it. To understand better what anxiety is, think of some real threat that causes you to feel afraid. The feeling you have when you know you're about to face that threat is anxiety. The feeling you have at the moment you experience it is fear or terror.

When you have the phobic disorder, that fear is triggered even in harmless situations. You associate some stimulus with the thing you fear, and your body prepares to fight or flee. It doesn't just happen once if you have the phobic disorder. It often happens, whenever you're presented with some stimulus that reminds you of your fear.

Symptoms Of Phobic Disorder

The symptoms of the phobic disorder are sometimes obvious and sometimes difficult to identify. There are physical, psychological, and behavioral symptoms that come with phobias.


Physical Symptoms

When your phobic response hasn't been triggered, your phobic symptoms may be hidden. You might feel perfectly calm, relaxed, and mentally healthy when that fear isn't triggering your phobia. However, once the phobia is triggered, you may have a panic attack. Panic attack symptoms include:

  • A choking sensation
  • Chills or hot flushes
  • Butterflies in the stomach
  • Pain or tightness in the chest
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Numbness
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Feeling faint
  • Dry mouth
  • Ringing in your ears

Psychological Symptoms

If your phobic reaction is severe, you might also have psychological symptoms. You might feel an intense fear of losing control. You might be afraid of fainting. You might even become confused or disoriented. When the reaction is intense enough, you might feel a sense of dread and fear of dying. Over the long term, people with phobias are more likely to have depression than other people.

Behavioral Symptoms

Behavioral symptoms of phobia arise from your feeling that you need to avoid the extreme fear associated with the trigger. You alter your habits so that you can live peacefully, without fear. You may avoid places where you might be triggered to have a phobic response. You may avoid meeting people if you have social phobia. You may even be so afraid to face those triggers that you don't leave your home at all.

Types Of Phobia

Phobias are divided up into three types: specific phobia, social phobia, and agoraphobia. Specific phobia is a simple phobia, while social phobia and agoraphobia are complex phobias. Specific phobias typically have only one, easily-identified trigger. With complex phobias, the triggers are much harder to recognize.


Specific Phobia

A specific phobia is an irrational and persistent fear of one thing. With a specific phobia, only one stimulus triggers the fear. If you have a fear of snakes, you might be afraid when you see a snake in the wild, when you see one in a zoo, or even if you see a video of one on social media. However, when you don't see a snake or anything resembling a snake, you're no more afraid than anyone else.

Social Phobia

Social phobia is a fear of being in public places or social situations. You feel scared, vulnerable and anxious. When you have social phobia, you tend to stay away from these situations, even if you miss out on fun activities or career opportunities.

What you fear most about social situations is that you'll be publicly humiliated or judged. This is different from shyness because it's so extreme. You have a phobic reaction to social events, not just a tendency to feel awkward or tense.


Agoraphobia is an extreme type of phobia revolving around being in situations where you can't escape. You have a long list of fears related to being in public, such as:

  • Fear of open spaces
  • Fear of elevators
  • Fear of being in a closed MRI
  • Fear of being in a crowd

These fears may cause you to withdraw from the world. You may even stay in your home as much as possible to avoid these fears.

What Causes Phobias?

Simple phobias are usually caused any time from early childhood to early adulthood. You face a terrifying experience. Your reaction is so profound that it carries over to future perceived signs that you might face that terror again. Before you're even near being confronted with that thing of the situation, your body shifts into fight or flight mode.


You might also have a simple phobia if you were present when someone else displayed panic symptoms over a simple fear. As a child, you're learning from everything you see. In much the same way. You learn to have the same phobia as someone close to you.

It isn't as easy to identify what causes phobias that fall into the complex category. Some studies have found evidence that it could be a genetic mutation or due to experiences. It's just another example of the old nature-nurture debate, as researchers try to determine how great a role each of these possible causes plays.

Treatments For Phobic Disorder

Several different treatments have been proven effective to help people with phobias. Medications can provide relief, but a longer-term effect is possible through talk therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy and virtual reality therapy.


Several medications are used to ease the physical and emotional symptoms of phobias. These include Paxil, Zoloft, and Inderal. Your doctor may also prescribe antidepressants for steady relief and anti-anxiety medications to help at the moment you feel panicked.

For many people with phobias, medications are the preferred first treatment. Therapies that change your mental processes give relief that lasts even after your doctor discontinues prescriptions for phobia. The main advantage of talk and exposure therapies is that you don't have to deal with chemical side effects associated with the meds. You also don't have to remember to take meds every day.

Systematic Desensitization

Systematic desensitization is exposure therapy. The way it works is that you're exposed to a very mild and small example of what you fear. For instance, if you're afraid of snakes, you might first look through pictures of snakes. When that feels more familiar and less frightening, you move on to more frightening examples of the thing you fear.


In the snake example, you might see snakes in a zoo. Later, you might let a nonpoisonous snake climb on your arm. Over time, you lose your intense reaction to snakes. You might still feel afraid, but it's a much milder reaction. It's also more appropriate to the situation. After this treatment, you might feel scared when you see a snake poised to strike, but you won't have the phobic reaction when the snake is behind glass at the zoo.

Virtual Reality Therapy

Virtual reality therapy is another type of exposure therapy that's gaining popularity in recent years. Here's how it works:

You view the object of your phobia on a computer screen, in a virtual reality headset, or in a specially-designed 'cave,' which is a small room with a large screen projector and powerful audio speakers. The result is that you feel you're facing that object over and over. The more often you're exposed to it, the milder your reaction to it is.


Biofeedback specifically works to reduce your physiological response to fears you identify as irrational and extreme. The doctor or therapist places electronic sensors on you to record your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and other vital signs. The results are displayed on a screen. As you're exposed to the object of your fear, you watch the screen and try to change your vitals, so they indicate that you're relaxed.


Counter-conditioning simply means you replace your fear with a different experience or practice. For example, you might learn to respond to a terrifying stimulus by doing deep breathing exercises. To do this, you must be exposed to the thing you fear and practice your deep breathing each time.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy involves identifying thoughts behind feelings. Once you know the thought that's producin


g your feelings, you can change the thought. You also set behavior goals. After you work towards those goals, you continue to use CBT to deal with your reactions to lessen your phobic response to the things that cause fear for you.

Now that you know that scared meaning phobia is a simplistic definition, you probably realize that phobias are different from passing fears. They continue long after the real threat has passed. The good news is that you can start treatment right away on the online counseling platform with a real, licensed counselor trained in helping people with phobias. When you do, you give yourself a wonderful opportunity to have a better, happier life!

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