We all experience fear at some point in our lives as a natural reaction to certain circumstances. However, if fear becomes irrational and begins impacting everyday life, this could be the sign of a phobia.
A phobias is a type of anxiety disorder that causes an excessive and persistent fear as the result of a particular trigger. In the UK it’s estimated that around 10 million people struggle with a phobia. There are hundreds of different phobias, but some are more common than others.
With this in mind, we’ll be covering 10 of the most common phobias; including risk factors, symptoms, and information on where to seek help.
What are phobias and what impact can they have?
A phobia is defined by the NHS as an overwhelming and debilitating fear of an object, place, situation, feeling, or animals.
It’s a common type of anxiety disorder that can affect people of any age, sex, and social background. Generally speaking, phobias can split into two main categories: specific and complex.
- Specific phobias revolve around a specific object, animal, situation, or activity. For example, spiders, flying, heights, or having injections. This type of phobia typically develops during childhood or adolescence.
- Complex phobias revolve around broader situations – for example, social phobia, which can manifest in a variety of different circumstances. Complex phobias tend to have a more disruptive, overwhelming impact on a person’s life, and typically develop during adulthood.
The severity of phobias varies from person to person and can range from mild to extreme. Some phobias can be so intense that a person may organise their entire life around avoiding the source of their fear.
Phobia symptoms will be different for everyone, but some of the most common physical symptoms include difficulty breathing, chest tightness, lightheadedness, and hot flushes. Emotional symptoms can include panic, anxiety, and feeling detached or generally powerless over your fear.
Common causes of phobias include traumatic experiences, learned experiences (for example, growing up with parents who had phobias), and genetics (there’s evidence that some people may have a natural tendency to be more anxious than others). However, there’s not always an exact cause and phobias are often the result of various contributing factors, which we’ll explore in more depth below.
10 of the most common phobias
Some of the most common phobias include…
1. Social phobia
Social phobia (also known as social anxiety disorder) is an overwhelming fear of social situations. People with this phobia may have trouble talking to others, meeting new people, attending social events, and even carrying out daily activities such as grocery shopping, due to fear of being judged or scrutinised.
Having to socialise may cause symptoms such as trembling or shaking, difficulty speaking, sweating, and nausea.
Research shows that having a biological family member who has (or has had) social phobia can make someone two to six times more likely to develop it. Experiencing negative life events such as family conflict, trauma, or abuse; or having a condition or appearance that draws people’s attention (for example, facial disfigurement, stuttering, or trembling due to Parkinson’s disease) can also trigger social phobia.
Atychiphobia involves an irrational and persistent fear of failing. The phobia can relate to any area of life (for example, work, relationships, or parenting) and cause people to self-sabotage as a preventative mechanism. For example, not starting a project at work to avoid any risk of failing.
Factors that can increase a person’s risk of developing atychiphobia include being a perfectionist; having previous experience of failing, particularly if the experience had important consequences (for example, missing out on an important job); and subconsciously learning to fear failure (for example, by having extremely high expectations put on you as a child).
Thanatophobia is a fear of death or the dying process in general. People with this phobia can feel extremely anxious when encountering or thinking about death and may actively avoid any situation that could potentially link to it – for example, general news coverage.
According to experts, certain factors can make people more likely to develop thanatophobia – including age and gender. Research has found that thanatophobia typically peaks in men and women in their 20s, but women sometimes experience a second spike in their 50s.
Having parents who are near the end of life or suffering from health issues that make you consider your future, such as cancer, can also be contributing factors.
Trypophobia is the fear of clusters of closely packed holes. The name combines the Greek word tyrpa (meaning punching or drilling holes) with phobia (fear or aversion).
People with trypophobia typically feel distressed, nauseous, or anxious when looking at surfaces that have small holes gathered close together or in a cluster – for example, lotus seed pods, honeycomb, and sponges. Animals with spotted skin or fur, such as cheetahs, Dalmations, or poison dart frogs, can also prompt the same reaction.
More research is needed to pinpoint a clear cause of trypophobia, but some experts have suggested that it may be the result of a biological fear of dangerous creatures.
For example, some studies have identified subtle similarities between images of dangerous animals like the blue-ringed octopus and king cobra with trypophic images. This suggests trypophobia could be less to do with a fear of holes and more the result of an unconscious association of harmless items (like lotus seed pods) with dangerous animals.
Arachnophobia relates to an overwhelming fear of spiders that can interfere with daily life. Some people may fear both spiders and spiderwebs, or just spiders specifically.
Symptoms of arachnophobia can include avoidance of spiders, fear or anxiety that’s out of proportion to the danger a spider poses, and panic responses such as rapid heartbeat or difficulty breathing when in contact with – or even just thinking about – spiders.
According to experts, arachnophobia is most likely to develop before the age of 10. It can be the result of experiencing one or more traumatic encounters with spiders, or growing up with parents or loved ones who had an intense fear.
Research also suggests that arachnophobia may also stem from a hard-wired evolutionary survival technique that humans developed in response to dangerous creatures.
Nosophobia involves a persistent, irrational fear of developing a chronic, often life-threatening disease, such as cancer, heart disease, or HIV.
Because the fear tends to persist even after having a professional health examination, people with nosophobia may want to see a doctor very frequently for exams and tests.
Some with nosophobia actively avoid any mention of certain diseases, including on the news and from other people; while others will want to know as much as possible about certain diseases – sometimes spending hours reading into it or monitoring the news for stories of potential outbreaks.
Nosophobia differs from hypochondria (illness anxiety disorder) which causes people to worry about all types of illness.
Living through a disease outbreak or having someone close to you develop a serious illness with complications can be a potential trigger for nosophobia, especially if you’re taking care of that person.
In more recent years, easy access to health information via the internet has also been shown to increase anxiety around health.
Claustrophobia is triggered by an intense fear of confined or crowded spaces.
What people consider to be a small space will vary depending on the severity of their phobia but some common examples include being stuck in a crowded elevator, being locked in a room without windows, and driving on a congested road.
People typically develop claustrophobia in their childhood or teenage years. Experts aren’t clear on what causes claustrophobia, though it’s believed that environmental factors and experiences play a large role.
For example, you may have found yourself stuck in a small or crowded space for a long period of time, on crowded public transport, or experienced turbulence on an aeroplane.
Vehophobia is the fear of driving or riding in a vehicle. For some people, vehophobia can trigger distress around the general experience of driving or being a passenger in a car, while for others, the phobia might relate to specific driving situations such as driving over a bridge, through a tunnel, or changing lanes on the motorway.
Some of the most common causes and triggers of vehophobia include fear of having a panic attack while driving, previous experience of car accidents, a lack of trust in your driving ability, watching a bad car accident on television, and travelling through heavy traffic.
Acrophobia is the fear of heights. People with acrophobia may feel extremely anxious and fearful about situations that involve being far off the ground – for example, being at the top of a building or climbing a ladder.
The phobia can be disruptive and affect a person’s ability to carry out everyday life. For example, they may worry about an upcoming holiday that could put them in a high-floor hotel room, or be put off home repairs due to fear of using a ladder.
Research shows that a certain level of reluctance around height is normal for humans, but that the hyper reaction caused by acrophobia is usually the result of a learned response – for example, from a previous fall or growing up with parents who had acrophobia.
Science has also suggested that various conditions such as vertigo, bathmophobia (fear of slopes and stairs), and aerophobia (fear of flying) can increase the risk of developing acrophobia, or occur alongside it.
Aerophobia involves an intense fear of flying or air travel. It can cause physical symptoms such as disorientation, choking sensations, flushed skin, shaking, shortness of breath, and in some cases, a panic attack.
Some people with aerophobia are reasonably comfortable at the airport and only start experiencing symptoms when boarding the plane, while others have trouble as soon as they arrive at the airport.
Factors that can play a role in aerophobia include experiencing a traumatic flight or plane crash, or even watching one on the news, and growing up with parents with a fear of flying. Aerophobia can also be rooted in an entirely different conflict. For example, aerophobia that develops soon after a job promotion that requires you to travel could be caused by concerns about what impact the job itself may have on daily life.
Tips for coping with phobias and where to seek help
Living with a phobia can be difficult. But, the good news is that there are steps you can take to help you overcome your fears and treatment, should you need it, is often fairly successful.
Some self-care tips for phobias that you might like to consider include…
- Practising anti-anxiety breathing exercises
- Talking to someone you trust
- Joining a local or online support group. Search for local peer support on the Mind website.
- Exploring self-help resources designed for people with phobias.
Remember, different things will work for different people so it’s important to do what you feel most comfortable with.
If you’re suffering from a phobia and would like professional help, it’s important to book an appointment with your GP, as they’ll be able to discuss treatment options with you. Professional treatment can include self-exposure therapy and talking therapies such as counselling, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and psychotherapy.
If you’re supporting a loved one with a phobia, Mind offers guidance on how to help someone experiencing phobias that you might find helpful.
Having a phobia can have a significant impact on a person’s life. But while difficult and sometimes scary to deal with, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. By leaning into the resources and self-care tips available to you, phobias are something that can be overcome.