What Are Phobias? Discover Their Symptoms and Characteristics

Are there situations you avoid, or run from, because you have intense fear? In some cases, do you feel terror or fear of an object, animal or situation? If so, you may have a phobia. Learn more in the following article
What Are Phobias? Discover Their Symptoms and Characteristics
Bernardo Peña

Written and verified by el psicólogo Bernardo Peña.

Last update: 08 August, 2021

What are phobias? The word phobia comes from the Greek word “phobos” which means fear, panic and terror. It consists of an excessive, irrational and persistent fear of an object, activity or situation that causes an intense desire to avoid.

The fear must be recognized by the subject itself as excessive and irrational and the avoidance behavior involved must cause some degree of disability or impairment in their behavior.

Types of phobias

Three types of phobias can be distinguished:


This is a fear of being alone in open places or crowded public places. Really, what the person fears here is that they may suffer from some sort of disabling symptom, such as a panic attack. However, it can also involve fainting, falling, urinating, vomiting, etc. This fear also refers to situations where the person may find it difficult to get out or seek help if symptoms appear suddenly.

As a result of this anticipatory anxiety, the subject avoids these types of situations or places, such as traveling, shopping, queuing, etc. Another option is to find a person to accompany and help you, in the event that the symptom occurs. In the most serious cases, the patient remains at home without going out and with someone to accompany them.

In most cases, it’s associated with panic attacks, and is known as a panic crisis disorder with agoraphobia. Agoraphobia without panic attacks is more typical of late adolescence, while agoraphobia with panic attacks occurs from around the age of 30. This disorder will need to be treated with antidepressants, mainly SSRIs, and alprazolam.


Social phobia

This is a fear of situations where the person may be exposed to the observation of others, such as situations of a social nature. They’re situations where the person may be subject to the gaze of others and where they may be afraid of acting in a humiliating or embarrassing way.

For example, public speaking is, without question, the most frequent social fear. Others may be eating in public, using public services, writing in the presence of others, etc.

Two types of social phobia can be distinguished:

  • Specific to certain situations, where the most common is public speaking. These patients have usually suffered more experiences of conditioning or traumatic episodes.
  • Generalized to most situations of social interaction: It’s characterized by higher levels of neuroticism and more history of shyness in the person’s development. These people are more introverted.

Cognitive biases around social phobia

  • Social phobics have very high standards and are perfectionists about what constitutes proper social interaction. They’re very rigid in judging the quality or satisfaction of a social relationship. This may be related to their great sensitivity to rejection and criticism and may also make them more dependent.
  • If we compare their evaluation of their social performance with that of independent judges, they judge themselves much more negatively than others do from the outside. They’re never satisfied with their social performance; they think they’re clumsier and less skilled than they really are.
  • According to the judgment of independent observers, the social behavior of social phobics after being treated with behavior therapy and cognitive therapy is the same as anybody’s. However, after behavioral therapy, these people continue to judge themselves as socially unsuitable and unskilled. It’s best to combine both types of therapy, which is known as cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Woman crying

Simple phobia

These are persistent fears of specific stimuli or situations different from the previous ones. For example, animals, heights, closed spaces, darkness, blood, etc. In fact, their physiological correlates are opposite to those of the other phobias, consisting of decreases in sympathetic activity and increases in parasympathetic activity.

A preattentive and unconscious perceptual analysis, via the amygdala, of phobic stimuli, such as snakes, spiders, etc., is sufficient to produce emotional reactions. This indicates a preattentive bias at an automatic level.

Subjects with phobia, in general, and those with agoraphobia, in particular, have clearly dependent personalities.

It’s assumed that agoraphobics were overprotected as children. Extreme overprotection during childhood can deprive children of the opportunity to develop a sense of mastery and control. This can create a psychological vulnerability to experience subsequent negative events in an anxious way.

This is related to separation anxiety from parental figures, studied as a precursor to panic attacks and agoraphobia. Separation anxiety is more likely to occur in a context of overprotection.

The degree of neuroticism and autonomic reactivity is higher in agoraphobia, lower in social phobia and practically normal in simple phobia. The importance of learning and conditioning factors in the origin and maintenance of these disorders follows an inverse gradation to the previous one.

Conclusions about phobias

In conclusion, phobias are psychopathological disorders closely related to anxiety. It should be noted that knowing the origin of the phobia and explaining why they have it isn’t enough to solve it. In fact, many patients know perfectly well the origin of their fears.

Therefore, cognitive-behavioral treatment is important. It’s important to face fear directly and work with cognitive and emotional responses.

  • Cejudo de la Sierra, R., & Fernández Mesa, A. (2017). Fobia social: un fenómeno incapacitante. Revista Electrónica de Psicología Iztacala18(2), 836-851.
  • Moreno, J. R. (2017). Comprender la ansiedad, las fobias y el estrés. Ediciones Pirámide.
  • Resnik, P. (2016). Ansiedad, estrés, pánico y fobias: 100 preguntas, 101 respuestas. B DE BOOKS.

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