A specific phobia is an intense, excessive, and unreasonable fear of a specific object, place, or situation. People with specific phobias strongly avoid places or situations which they suspect might put them in contact with the feared object or circumstance. The person often knows the fear is irrational or disproportionate, but is unable to stop feeling terrified. Common specific phobias deal with animals (cockroaches, dogs, snakes), natural environmental elements (heights, thunderstorms, water), and specific situations (airplanes, enclosed spaces, bridges, medical procedures, dental work, vomiting, choking, loud sounds). Regardless of what they fear, all people with specific phobias experience intense anxiety and distress when confronted with the situation, place, or object–or even when imagining being exposed to the feared stimulus. They may experience strong anxiety, or even full-blown panic attacks.
Most of us avoid things that make us uncomfortable–but we’re usually able to carry on our daily activities despite discomfort. In contrast, specific phobias cause impairment. Sufferers might have strained relationships, limited work efficiency or abilities, or low self-esteem. For example, many people are afraid of flying. People with specific phobias may refuse to fly anywhere. They may turn down an important promotion because it involves air travel. They may endure strain on or loss of romantic partnerships as vacations become more and more difficult, if not impossible. Such individuals become demoralized and furious with themselves that they can’t overcome the fear on their own despite numerous efforts to cope with the situation (drinking alcohol, taking medications, bringing someone else along).
While some people develop specific phobias in childhood, most of them have an unexpected onset, usually during adolescence or early adulthood. Because the onset is sudden, and may occur in situations that were previously distress-free, people frequently try at length to “figure out” where the fear is coming from. The most common statement I hear from people with specific phobias is, “I don’t understand it. I used to be fine flying. What happened? Why am I afraid now?”
Although questioning is an understandable response, it is important to remember that a phobia is, by definition, irrational, and therefore cannot be reasoned away–if it could, no one would need treatment. Rather than continuing to try to figure out where the fear is coming from, I encourage you to empower yourself and seek cognitive behavioral treatment–it’s consistently proven remarkably effective.