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A phobia is a type of anxiety in which a person changes their life to avoid something they are afraid of, which might be a situation, an object or a creature.

Around 10 million people in the UK are thought to have phobias.

A phobic person understands that the fear is excessive or groundless. The effort to resist it only brings more anxiety. Phobias often begin in childhood and are irrational and disabling fears that produce a compelling desire to avoid the dreaded object or situation.

Specific or simple phobias are the most common - involving things such as school, dentists, dogs, snakes, heights, tunnels or flying. The fear is usually not of the object itself but of some dire outcome, such as falling from a plane.

Complex phobias include social phobia and agoraphobia - not just a fear of open spaces, but being anxious about having trouble escaping from places or situations from which escape might be difficult.

In social phobia, a person's central fear is of being humiliated in public. People with this kind of phobia may even balk at eating in a restaurant. They avoid public speaking, parties and public toilets. Such situations and places may bring blushing, palpitations, sweating, tremors, stammering or faintness.

What causes phobias?

Some specific phobias can be explained by early traumatic events, such as the bite of a dog, but the majority have no obvious cause. Most develop when an underlying fear or conflict is transferred to something completely unrelated.

Agoraphobia may develop in response to repeated panic attacks. Symptoms of social phobia may develop early in childhood, but the true cause is unknown.

What are the types of phobia?

There are three main types of phobias:

  • If you have a persistent, irrational fear of particular objects or situations, such as snakes, spiders, heights, blood, flying or lifts, you have a specific phobia.
  • If you have a persistent, irrational fear of situations where you may be scrutinised or criticised or embarrassed by other people, you have social phobia or a social anxiety disorder.
  • If you fear leaving home, being alone, or being away from home in a situation where you feel trapped or helpless, you have agoraphobia.

Common specific phobias

There are different types of specific or simple phobias, based on the object or situation feared, including:

  • Animal phobias: Examples include the fear of dogs, snakes, insects, or mice. Animal phobias are the most common specific phobias.
  • Situational phobias: These involve a fear of specific situations, such as flying, riding in a car or on public transport, driving, going over bridges or in tunnels, or of being in a closed-in place, like a lift.
  • Natural environment phobias: Examples include the fear of storms, heights or water.
  • Blood-injection-injury phobias: These involve a fear of being injured, of seeing blood or of invasive medical procedures, such as blood tests or injections
  • Other phobias: These include a fear of falling down, a fear of loud sounds, and a fear of costumed characters, such as clowns.

A person can have more than one specific phobia.

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