What Is Xenophobia, And Is It A Phobia?

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated May 18, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Xenophobia can be described as fear, hatred, or prejudice against those different from you. The object of xenophobia may be anything considered strange or unknown to an individual or group, including those of different nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, regions, religions, cultures, or 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?

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Xenophobia is harmful to individuals and society.

Is Xenophobia A Mental Health Disorder?

Xenophobia is not recognized as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The American Psychiatric Association maintains that racism and xenophobia are cultural or social issues rather than psychopathology.

Some psychiatrists may believe that xenophobia cannot or should not be treated. However, other mental health professionals may argue that racist attitudes and xenophobic ideas should be considered a symptom of a mental health disorder. Even though xenophobia is not a mental health condition, it may still be treated with therapy.

The concept of xenophobia is not a psychological phobia. To be diagnosed as an actual phobia, a person with xenophobia must have an intense fear or hatred towards people of all different cultures, customs, or nationalities instead of a single target.

Many individuals who are considered xenophobic do not dislike all people from other cultures. Often, their aversion may be reserved for particular groups of people, such as those of East Asian or Southeast Asian descent, religions, customs, or geographical locations like Eastern Europe. This long history of xenophobia shows that it is deeply rooted in societal beliefs and negative stereotypes.

Characteristics Of Xenophobia

Individuals who demonstrate xenophobia often believe their culture, ethnicity, race, or social group is superior to others.

While characteristics and ways of expressing xenophobia may vary from person to person, there may be common signs among individuals, including the following:

  • They may feel uncomfortable around individuals from a different group than their own, such as Chinese Americans or religious minorities
  • They may take extreme measures to avoid certain areas or contact with that group, like avoiding neighborhoods with a high concentration of foreign workers
  • They may refuse to be friends with other individuals simply because of their skin color, nationality, ethnic background, or other external factors
  • They may believe in stereotypes about other groups or label people negatively due to their background, skin color, or social standing, perpetuating the history of xenophobia
  • They may find it difficult to report to a superior who is not from the same cultural, ethnic, racial, or religious background as them, especially if they have immigrant xenophobia
  • Individuals who demonstrate xenophobia often believe their culture, ethnicity, race, or social group is superior to others. 

Xenophobic attitudes and behaviors may appear in many contexts in everyday life, and they aren’t necessarily violent. Some individuals could be unaware that they are expressing a xenophobic attitude.

Some common potential xenophobic behaviors could include:

  • Negatively criticizing the way someone from another culture dresses, such as traditional Eastern Europe garments
  • Referring to your culture’s food as normal and another group’s as weird exemplifying increased xenophobia
  • Refusing to travel somewhere because of a particular ethnic group there, like avoiding areas with a high population of immigrants
  • Having no friends or acquaintances from outside groups because they make you uncomfortable, especially young people from diverse backgrounds
  • Feeling like those who don’t speak English well or speak other languages are not intelligent
  • Avoiding neighborhoods where racial minorities live
  • Making fun of AAVE (African American Vernacular English) or someone’s accent or assuming it makes someone less intelligent
  • Assuming that other countries or cultures are underdeveloped or lack the same qualities as your own, reflecting the belief in cultural superiority

Causes Of Xenophobia

Xenophobia may be deeply rooted, based on various factors, including upbringing, religious teachings, environment, culture, and past experiences. Historical events, such as the Great Depression or World War II, might have shaped government policy and influenced public opinion on immigration, leading to xenophobia and racism.

Individuals with xenophobic beliefs or attitudes may not have had much exposure to groups of individuals they consider different, such as indigenous people or outsiders. Therefore, they might develop a fear or dislike of the unknown. Nationalistic views and material or economic factors may contribute to xenophobia among some individuals. A specific traumatic experience or crisis, like xenophobic attacks, may also cause these beliefs.

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Impact Of Xenophobia

Xenophobia can have a significant impact not only on the targeted group or individual but on societies, cultural attitudes, politics, history, and economics. Colloquially, xenophobia refers to the behavior of a group or an individual based on the intense dislike of or intolerance for people of another race or culture. 

Xenophobia could also be based on a perceived threat. For example, someone may believe that immigrants from specific countries are criminals or will harm their livelihood. The level of fear or hatred displayed with xenophobia often exceeds typical racially prejudiced behavior.

Xenophobia may be associated with the following examples:

  • Hostility and violence towards those of different groups or backgrounds (so called “strangers”)
  • 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
  • A lack of education on foreign policies 

There may be other forms and different degrees of how individuals express xenophobia. However, whether it’s a violent crime or a xenophobic attitude, it may negatively affect how individuals live within a society. 

For example, immigrants traveling to the United States from a South American country may experience racism when they speak their language or attempt to get a job to support themselves in a new location. On the other hand, immigrants from certain European countries, such as England, may be treated with respect or kindness when trying to arrange a job. This unequal treatment of people from different regions highlights the importance of organizations like the United Nations, which works to promote equality, understanding, and cooperation among nations to combat such discrimination.

How To Overcome Xenophobia

Xenophobia is often a learned response. Overcoming this mindset may take active unlearning of previous opinions or behaviors. 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 may choose to implement dramatic changes. A professional counselor, open-minded friend or family, or support group may be an option. You can also try the following tips. 

Educate Yourself

If you have feelings of xenophobia, one of the reasons may be a lack of understanding or education about a particular group of individuals. 

You may consider reading books or watching videos from credible sources to educate yourself and gain exposure. Credible sources may include:

  • Psychological journals 
  • Encyclopedias from the library 
  • Library resources, such as news stories or non-fiction historical books 
  • Books about racism or xenophobia written by minorities impacted by xenophobia 
  • Online videos from minorities who have been targeted by xenophobia
  • Law books 
  • Historians
  • University staff 
  • University libraries or resource pages
  • Google Scholar

Educating yourself may help you clear up any mistakes or assumptions that could fuel your fear.

Expand Your Experiences

A potentially effective way to overcome xenophobia is broadening your horizons and immersing yourself in cultures, traditions, and worldviews that are different from your own. 

Traveling to new countries or cities may help you gain new experiences. This experience could enable you to conquer any problematic beliefs and attitudes. You might also try to learn a new language to interact with those from other countries or individuals in your community who don’t speak fluent English. 

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, and yoga can all be helpful ways to practice mindfulness and stay in the present.

Talk To Your Children

Because xenophobia is often learned, consider talking to your children about this negative mindset early and often. Have an honest and open conversation with them. Expose them to different cultures, traditions, and ethnic groups, and challenge stereotypes they pick up at school or in the media.  

You might also teach your children to embrace differences in people. Consider encouraging them to see people as complex individuals and not groups of individuals. Working on empathy with your children may also be helpful. 

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 successfully overcome them.

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Xenophobia is harmful to individuals and society.

Therapy For Those Impacted By Xenophobia 

For those that have experienced xenophobia firsthand, therapy may be beneficial in supporting you during difficult times. Studies show that online treatment is effective in treating those individuals experiencing complex emotions related to a traumatic event, such as a xenophobic act. 

Online therapy is available if you’ve been affected in any way by xenophobia or discrimination or have xenophobic feelings you’d like to overcome. Xenophobia can trigger feelings of shame, whether you’re on the giving or receiving end of the equation. Online therapy is a discreet way of seeking treatment, and you can attend sessions via live chat, voice call, messaging, or video conferencing. 

If you’d like to try therapy, you might consider an online therapy platform such as BetterHelp, which has a database of therapists specializing in various topics. 


Suppose you or someone you know has experienced xenophobic prejudice or violence, or you’d like to overcome your xenophobic attitudes. In that case, it may be helpful to seek support from a therapist. 

Consider reaching out for unbiased and compassionate trauma assistance by trained therapists and counselors.

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