A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Figuring out phobias: Why they start and how to stop them

Woman appearing scared on a plane - Phobias

Phobias, or fears out of proportion to risk, sometimes prevent people from doing required activities, like getting on a plane for a business trip.

Does the sight of a needle make you feel like fainting? Do you avoid your basement at all costs because just thinking about spiders makes your palms sweat?

You’re not alone.

About 7-9 percent of Americans have phobias. A phobia is more than just getting a shiver down your spine when you see a spider. It involves significant anxiety about an object or situation that is out of proportion to the risk. The fear is intense and typically lasts more than six months.

Many types of phobias exist, but fear of spiders, snakes, heights, flying, injections, germs and social situations like public speaking are most common.

“A phobia can turn into an avoidance issue when an object or situation causes so much distress that it impairs your work or home life,” said Jennifer Michels, Ph.D., a Marshfield Clinic psychologist.

Phobias can start with an event or spontaneously

Sometimes phobias begin after traumatic events, like animal attacks or bad medical experiences involving needles. The fears may be related to post-traumatic stress disorder rather than phobias in some cases.

A phobia can begin when someone has a panic attack they connect to a certain object or situation. For example, someone who never used to fear flying may develop a phobia if he has a panic attack on an airplane.

Phobias and panic attacks are linked in another way. People with panic disorder are at risk for developing agoraphobia, which is a fear of being alone in a situation or place that is hard to escape.

In many cases, people don’t know when or why their fear started.

“Intense fear sometimes starts with warnings from parents about things that may be risky or media coverage of a frightening event,” Michels said.

Slow exposure helps reduce anxiety

Most people who seek psychotherapy for phobias do so because their fears prevent them from doing required activities, like getting on a plane for a business trip.

Phobias usually are treatable with a brief course of psychotherapy. A therapist will teach you to change the meaning you associate with the object or situation you’re afraid of. You will learn to gradually expose yourself to your fear instead of avoiding it.

“Medication is sometimes used in conjunction with psychotherapy to help ease anxiety so the process of facing your fear is easier,” Michels said.

Some people can overcome phobias with the help of family and friends. If you’re afraid of dogs, visiting a calm dog that is on a leash held by a trusted family member might be a good first step.

The structure and skill development provided in psychotherapy may be helpful if you aren’t able to overcome your fear on your own.

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