A phobia is an anxiety disorder. It is an extreme or irrational fear of:

  • an animal,
  • object,
  • place, or
  • situation.

Phobias are more than simple fears. They develop when a person begins to organise their life around avoiding the things they are afraid of.

If you have a phobia, you will have an overwhelming need to avoid all contact with the source of your anxiety. Coming into contact, or even the thought of coming into contact, with the cause of your phobia will make you anxious and may cause you to panic.

If the cause of your phobia is an object or animal, such as snakes, and you do not come into contact with it regularly, it is unlikely to affect your day-to-day life. However, if you have a more complex phobia, such as agoraphobia (the fear of open spaces and public places), you may find it very difficult to lead a normal life.

Types of phobia

There are many different phobias, which can be divided into two main categories:

  • simple phobias, and
  • complex phobias.

Simple phobias

Simple phobias are fears about specific objects, animals, situations or activities. Some common examples include:

  • dogs,
  • spiders,
  • snakes,
  • enclosed spaces,
  • dentists, and
  • flying.

Phobias affect different people in different ways. Some people only react with mild anxiety when confronted with the object of their fear, while others experience severe anxiety or have a severe panic attack.

Complex phobias

Complex phobias tend to be more disabling than simple phobias because they are often associated with a deep-rooted fear or anxiety about a particular circumstance or situation. Two common examples of complex phobias are:

  • agoraphobia, and
  • social phobia.

Agoraphobia is a fear of open spaces or public places and can involve anxieties about leaving the home, going into shops or travelling on public transport. It can also involve a fear of being unable to escape immediately to a place of safety, usually the home.

Social phobia is a fear of social situations, such as weddings, or performing in social situations, such as public speaking. People with a social phobia have a fear of embarrassing themselves or of being humiliated in public.

How common are phobias?

Phobias are the most common type of anxiety disorder. In the UK, an estimated 10 million people have phobias. Phobias can affect anyone, regardless of age, sex and social background.

Simple phobias, such as a fear of going to the dentist, usually start during early childhood, often between the ages of four and eight. Simple phobias often disappear on their own as the child gets older and usually do not cause problems in adulthood.

Complex phobias usually start later in life. Social phobias often begin during puberty and agoraphobia in the late teens to early twenties. Sometimes, complex phobias continue for many years.


Almost all phobias can be successfully treated and cured. Treating simple phobias involves gradually becoming exposed to the animal, object, place or situation that causes fear. This process is known as desensitisation or self-exposure therapy (see Treatment and Self-help, above).

Treating complex phobias often takes longer and involves talking therapies, such as counsellingpsychotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Medication is not usually used to treat phobias. However, it is sometimes prescribed to help people cope with the effects of anxiety.


Information from NHS Choices

Mental Health Foundation
Mental Health Foundation
The Royal College Of Psychiatrists