Specific and Social Phobias: Definition, Causes and Treatment

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  • 0:06 Fear
  • 1:51 Specific Phobia
  • 5:01 Social Phobia
  • 7:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

What are the similarities and differences between specific and social phobias? This lesson will explore this question, as well as the causes of, and treatments for, both types of phobias.


In the middle of your back are your kidneys. On top of your kidneys are these two little blobby hats known as the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are responsible for several things, including your fear reaction. Fear is the body's natural reaction to stressful stimuli. There are several competing theories about how your body, the brain, and the mind all work together to produce what we call fear. We don't need to go into that fully, but what we do need is the basic components of them.

Your body has a fear reaction that enabled it to survive as a hunter-gatherer thousands of years ago. When you become afraid, your body releases adrenaline, which jacks up your system into overdrive. Adrenaline makes your heart pump faster, your blood pressure go up, your respiration go up, and parts of your brain to shut down. It also shuts down digestion and saliva since the food in your stomach isn't as important as the thing you're afraid of (see: saber-tooth tiger). Basically, you're in survival mode.

The problem is when this fear reaction occurs indiscriminately. If you're being charged by a big saber-tooth tiger, then all these fear responses make you better able to escape it or maybe even kill it. If you're being charged by a spider, these responses don't work so well since you're already 100 times its size. Or the fear reaction kicks in when you're trying to give a thank you speech. This is an over-reaction. This over-reaction to objects or situations is known as a phobia. Let's look at specific and social phobias, what their causes are, and how to treat them.

Specific Phobia

Specific phobias are diagnosed when the following criteria are met:

  • Marked fear or anxiety that is disproportional to the specific object or situation, like freaking out over dogs, spiders, flying, or seeing blood
  • Fear reaction is immediate to the object or situation
  • Feared object or situation is actively avoided or endured with high anxiety or fear
  • Fearfulness occurring for at least six months and causes impaired functioning

Specific phobias come in one of five broad flavors that help psychologists differentiate and describe them. The specific flavors deal with the source of the fear, either animal, natural event, blood-injection-injury, situational (like airplanes or elevators), or other (like choking, loud noises, or clowns). Most specific phobias appear in childhood or early adulthood.

The causes are somewhat shaky due to some people developing specific phobias for no solid reason. Some people develop phobias after a traumatic event, such as going to a hospital following a spider bite or being trapped in an elevator after it breaks. This makes sense. However, sometimes phobias can appear out of the blue, without rhyme or reason.

Treatment for specific phobias includes both broad and specific ideas. Broad treatment includes cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a therapy that focuses on identifying and changing unhealthy thoughts and behavioral patterns. So, maybe there is an underlying reason for the fear. It's hard to give a specific example here, but it could be that a fear of driving may be linked to a grandparent dying in a car accident.

Another technique is called exposure treatment and involves gradual and increasing exposure to a phobic stimuli. So, if you're afraid of dogs, then the therapist gets you to look at a picture of a dog, then to watch a video of a dog, then to look at a real dog, then to stand near a real dog, then to touch the dog. There is an increasing level of contact that the person with the phobia will have.

Typically with exposure treatment, the therapist will also teach relaxation techniques, which are behavioral and cognitive steps to reduce anxiety and stress. If you've ever been part of yoga, the yoga breathing is a big one. In military situations, you have combat breathing. These are overt behaviors meant to trick your body into calming down.

Lastly, pharmacology may help in the form of anxiolytics, or anti-anxiety medication. These work by blocking receptor sites in the brain and body so that it forces the body to go into a calmer mode. The problem with these is that a person can become extremely dependent on them, being unable to calm down themselves without the medication. The body will also begin to build up a tolerance, meaning more and more must be used to get the same effect. Furthermore, if mixed with alcohol, these can slow down the body so far that you stop breathing - some scary stuff.

Social Phobia

Social phobias are a lot like specific phobias but with a few key differences. A social phobia is diagnosed when a person has:

  • Marked fear or anxiety that is disproportional to the social situations where one may be scrutinized
  • Active fear of being evaluated negatively, such as humiliated or embarrassed
  • Social situations always provoke anxious responses and are actively avoided
  • Fear or anxiety causes significant distress in functioning

People with social phobias are terrified of interacting with others. In their heads, there is a stream of ideas and pictures of how they will make a fool of themselves or how everything will go wrong. This triggers the fear response and the body begins to overreact, making the whole situation worse.

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