What is Xenophobia and Is it Really a Phobia?

By Nicola Kirkpatrick|Updated June 1, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

Xenophobia can be described as an irrational fear, hatred, or prejudice of those different from us. This can essentially be anything strange or unknown to an individual or group of individuals, including those of different nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, regions, religions, cultures, or even neighborhoods. Xenophobia is often associated with hostility, violence, and aggression against groups of people. Stories about xenophobia are frequent in the news, but is this behavior truly a phobia – and does it affect a person’s mental health? Read on to find out.

Is Xenophobia A Mental Health Disorder?

Xenophobia is The Fear of Foreigners or Strangers.


Xenophobia is not recognized as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The American Psychiatric Association argues that racism or xenophobia is a cultural or social issue, rather than one of psychopathology, leading some psychiatrists to believe it cannot or should not be treated. However, some mental health professionals argue that extreme racism could and should actually be considered a symptom of some mental health disorders.

The concept of xenophobia as we know it today it is not a true psychological phobia. To be diagnosed as an actual phobia, a person with xenophobia must have an intense fear of or hatred towards people of all different cultures, customs, or nationalities. However, most people who are considered “xenophobic” do not dislike all people from other cultures; their aversion is typically reserved for very specific groups of people, religions, customs, or geographical locations.


Characteristics Of Xenophobia

Individuals who demonstrate xenophobia usually believe their culture, ethnicity, race, etc., is somehow superior to others. While characteristics and ways of expressing xenophobia may vary from person to person, there may be certain common signs among individuals.

  • An individual experiencing xenophobia may feel uncomfortable around other individuals from a different group.
  • An individual may take extreme measures to avoid certain areas.
  • A person living with xenophobia may refuse to be friends with other individuals simply because of their skin color, nationality, ethnic background, or other external factors.
  • An individual may find it difficult to report to a superior professionally or connect with someone not from the same cultural, ethnic, racial, or religious background as themselves.

Xenophobic attitudes and behaviors may show up in many different contexts in everyday life, and they aren’t necessarily violent. However, they express fear or dislike about a particular group or individual that is different from you. Some individuals may be unaware that they are expressing a xenophobic attitude. Some examples may be:

  • Negatively criticizing the way someone dresses from a different culture.
  • Referring to your culture’s food as normal and another group’s as weird.
  • Refusing to travel somewhere because of a certain ethnic group there.
  • Having no friends or acquaintances from outside groups because they make you uncomfortable.

Causes Of Xenophobia

Xenophobia is usually deeply rooted and can be based on various factors, including upbringing, religious teachings, environment, culture, and past experiences. Individuals with xenophobic beliefs or attitudes may not have had much exposure to groups of individuals they consider different. Therefore, they may develop a fear or dislike of what is not known or familiar. Nationalistic views and material or economic factors may contribute to xenophobia among some individuals, as could a traumatic experience or crisis.

Impact Of Xenophobia


Xenophobia can have a great impact not only on the targeted group or individual but on entire societies, cultural attitudes, politics, history, and economics. In the news, xenophobia as a colloquial term refers mostly to the behavior of a particular group, or of an individual, based on the intense dislike of, or intolerance for, people of another race or culture, based on a perceived threat. An example of such a perceived threat is a person or a group’s cultural perception that immigrants or foreigners are taking jobs away from native workers. The level of fear or hatred displayed typically exceeds average racism or prejudice.

Xenophobia is associated with:

  • Hostility and violence towards those of different groups or backgrounds
  • Reduced social and economic opportunities for those in the discriminated group or outgroup.
  • Implicit bias towards those in the discriminated group
  • Discrimination
  • Hate Crimes
  • War and genocide
  • Political positions

Controversial Domestic And Foreign Policies

There may be different degrees of how individuals express xenophobia. However, regardless of whether it’s a violent crime or a xenophobic attitude, it can have extremely negative effects on how individuals live within a society. A xenophobic attitude towards a group of individuals may affect the group’s as well as the xenophobic individual’s access to housing, healthcare, and employment opportunities.

How To Overcome Xenophobia

Xenophobia is a learned response. Therefore, it essentially needs to be unlearned. To successfully overcome xenophobia in yourself, you may have to challenge various aspects of your life and the way you see the world. If you are experiencing feelings of xenophobia, you can implement changes that may help you overcome these beliefs and attitudes.

Educate Yourself

If you have feelings of xenophobia, one of the reasons may be not having a clear understanding or teaching on a particular group of individuals. Read books or watch videos from credible sources to educate yourself and gain exposure. This may help you clear up any misteaching or assumptions that your fear may come from.

Expand Your Experiences

A great way to overcome xenophobia is by broadening your horizons and immersing yourself in cultures, traditions, and groups of people that are different from yours. Traveling to new countries and different parts of the world may help you gain new experiences that may allow you to conquer your beliefs and attitudes.

Practice Mindfulness

It may be helpful to replace your xenophobic thoughts with mindfulness.  Mindfulness can be a powerful tool for challenging negative thought patterns. Meditation, breathing techniques, or yoga can be a great way to practice mindfulness and stay in the present.

Talk To Your Children

Because xenophobia is learned, it’s important to talk to your children early and often. Have an honest and open conversation with them. Expose them to different cultures, traditions, and ethnic groups, and challenge stereotypes that they may learn. It’s important to teach them to embrace differences in people. It’s also important to encourage them to consider people as individuals rather than lumping them into any particular group.

Stand Up

It may seem scary, but it’s important to stand up and call out individuals who express xenophobic behaviors or attitudes. If you see something, say something.

Talk To A Therapist

If you’re finding it difficult to overcome your feelings of xenophobia, a licensed mental health professional may be able to help. They can provide tools and guidance to help you understand where these feelings come from and to successfully overcome them.

Online Therapy Is Here For You

Xenophobia is The Fear of Foreigners or Strangers.

For those that have experienced xenophobia firsthand, therapy can be incredibly helpful to support you during difficult times. Studies show that online therapy can be helpful for those experiencing complex emotions related to a traumatic event, such as a xenophobic act. In a report published in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, a peer-reviewed medical journal, researchers studied the effects of online counseling, particularly online cognitive-behavioral therapy, on individuals experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After a 10-week treatment, participants reported feeling significant reductions in symptoms of PTSD. Cognitive-behavioral therapy may help individuals reframe intrusive thoughts to better manage unwanted feelings, such as those brought on by symptoms related to trauma.

If you’ve been affected in any way by xenophobia or discrimination, or you have xenophobic feelings you’d like to overcome, online therapy is there for you. BetterHelp is a discreet way of seeking treatment, allowing you to attend sessions remotely via live chat, voice call, messaging, or videoconference. You also can participate completely anonymously if you choose. BetterHelp won’t ask for your contact information when you register—select a “nickname,” and your identity will stay hidden. A qualified mental health professional can help you work through your trauma-related feelings and move forward. Read below for reviews of BetterHelp counselors from those who have experienced similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

“Dr. Molina helped me understand and validate my traumas in a way that was respectful and compassionate. She helped me find the tools to deal with my anxious and depressive episodes and realize that I am not broken. I now have a more concrete understanding of where my triggers stem from and what I can do about them. I feel confident in my ability to advocate for myself and my needs without feeling guilty. I am extremely thankful.”

  Dr. Josefa Molina – (More reviews)



“Lindsey is very good at putting things in perspective. She is a great listener and offers realistic, loving advice without being judgmental or harsh. I feel like she has helped me see things in a way that makes me able and willing to change my negative behaviors without feeling like my life will end, and I’ll never get over the loss of my old ways. It’s the way she phrases things and makes me see it in a new way that makes me able to have a light flip on that was out before.”


Suppose you or someone you know has experienced xenophobic prejudice or violence, or you’d like to overcome any xenophobic attitudes you may have. In that case, it may be helpful to seek support from a therapist. Reach out today for unbiased and compassionate trauma assistance by trained therapists and counselors, all from the privacy of your own home or wherever you have an internet connection.

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