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What Is Phobia? - Definition & Overview

Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

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

What does it mean to have a phobia? Is it possible to be afraid of abstract things like opinions or phobias themselves, or is it all a bunch of pseudopsychology? Read on to learn about the qualifications of phobias.

Phobias Defined

A phobia is a persistent, excessive, or unreasonable fear of something to the point of impairment. Someone with a phobia may feel fear or anxiety in the presence of the object or during a situation, or they may feel fear or anxiety in the anticipation of encountering that thing or situation. Let's compare some phobias to some non-phobias:

Phobias:

  • Abigail screams loudly and runs away every time she sees a spider.
  • Bob freezes in fear when he hears a dog, even if it is a sleeping Chihuahua.

Both Abigail and Bob's fears are persistent - they respond in fear every time they encounter a specific object or situation. Additionally, this fear is so excessive that it leads to impairment; Abigail screams and runs away, while Bob freezes in place.

Not phobias:

  • Cathy becomes worried when driving at night.
  • Dale feels uncomfortable before speaking in front of a crowd.

The reason Cathy and Dale's fears are not phobias is because the fear or worry is not excessive - it does not interfere with the individual's life. The situations make them uncomfortable but are not severe enough that they must be avoided.

If Cathy was unable to drive at night due to her fear and the thought of it gave her severe anxiety, then it might be considered a phobia. If Dale refused to speak in front of a crowd and he avoided, at all costs, the possibility of having to give a speech, then this may be considered a phobia.

Commonality and Proximity

All of the phobias above - fear of spiders, dogs, nighttime, and public speaking - are quite common; however, the object of a person's fear being common is not a requirement for a phobia. In fact, it is unlikely for someone to have a phobia of something that is so common that it lacks the ability to hurt them (like the sun or opinions). Additionally, it's unlikely for someone to have a phobia of something that is so uncommon that it may never occur (like a duck watching you while planning your murder). People's fears are more often specific and could potentially cause harm (like germs causing infection or fear of being attacked). And if the fear is outrageous, you may be looking at someone with a more severe mental disorder.

In addition to these elements, the anxiety and fear caused by the object or situation is directly related to how close it is. If a spider is in the next room, Abigail's anxiety might be at, say, 2 on a scale of 10, while a spider next to her may be a 9 out of 10. Even a description or an image of the feared object can cause an intense reaction.

Common Types

Research into phobias indicates there are some common groupings of phobias. They are:

  • Animals: fear of animals or insects. This phobia typically starts in childhood.

Spiders were too scary to put here.
dog

  • Natural environment: objects or events in the natural world, such as storms, heights, or water. This phobia typically starts in childhood.

Astraphobia is a fear of thunder and lightning.
Lightening

  • Blood-injection injury: a fear of blood, injury, or witnessing a medical procedure. This phobia is often passed down in a family and accompanied with a strong gag reflex.

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  • Situational: when the person is present in something, like a bus, tunnel, elevator, or enclosed space. Most common onsets are in childhood and early 20s.

Claustrophobia is a fear of small and enclosed spaces.
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