When Fear Takes Over — How Phobias Affect Mental Health and When to Get Help

When Fear Takes Over: How Phobias Affect Mental Health and When to Get Help

Alex lives on the first floor of his apartment building. He has always picked apartments, offices, and even restaurants on lower floors for as long as he can remember. He dreads heights and avoids tall buildings like the plague.

Alex’s fear of heights is more than just dread — it’s a phobia. A phobia is an irrational and intense fear of an activity, object, or situation. Phobias often cause distress and extreme anxiety and may heavily influence everyday life.

Phobias significantly affect mental health. When someone experiences irrational fear due to an object or situation, it can lead to side effects such as anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and reduced quality of life.

If you or someone you know is struggling with a phobia, this article can help. We delve into the various types of phobias, their potential causes, and valuable tips to conquer these intense fears.

Common Types of Phobias

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there are three main types of phobias:

  1. Specific phobia
  2. Social Phobia
  3. Agoraphobia

Specific phobias are fears of particular objects, situations, or activities. Examples include the fear of heights, or acrophobia; the fear of animals, also called zoophobia; and frigophobia, the fear of getting cold.

Social phobias are related to fear of social situations and interactions. These phobias are closely associated with other mental health conditions, such as social anxiety, substance use, and panic disorders. They include fear of public speaking or meeting new people.

Agoraphobia relates to fear of open or public spaces, crowds, or situations where help may not be readily available. People with agoraphobia fear being trapped or being in places they’re unable to escape.

What Are Some of the Main Causes of Phobias?

Various causes can influence the occurrence of phobias, including:

Past Accidents or Traumatic Events

A common cause of phobias is an early childhood trauma related to a specific object, situation, or activity. For example, someone who has been accidentally trapped in a confined space may become claustrophobic.

Medical Conditions

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America relates certain medical conditions to the development of phobias. Conditions such as traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, and neurological disorders can contribute to phobias of events or situations associated with the traumatic experience.


If a phobia interferes with your daily life, seek treatment from a licensed health professional.
If a phobia interferes with your daily life, seek treatment from a licensed health professional.

Family history and genetics may contribute to the development of phobias. If one family member has a specific phobia, there’s an increased risk of another family member developing a similar phobia.

Phobia Triggers to Look Out For

Phobia triggers are highly individualized and can vary in intensity from person to person. For specific phobias, it is generally easier to identify triggers. For instance, people with nyctophobia, a fear of darkness, are triggered by dark environments.

Some phobias can be triggered by thoughts, such as aquaphobia, where the idea of swimming can evoke intense fear. Social events like parties or meetings can trigger social phobias.

Ways Phobias Affect Mental Health

Phobias can affect mental health and a person’s well-being. People with phobias may develop issues, such as:

  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Avoidance behavior
  • Depressive disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

There are various treatment options to address phobias and their impact on mental health, typically involving therapeutic approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

How Do I Know if I Have a Phobia or Just a Normal Fear?

Health professionals agree that the fear or anxiety must significantly interfere with normal daily functioning to meet the criteria for a phobia diagnosis. Additionally, the fear must persist for about six months and not be better explained by another mental disorder.

Here are some other signs to help you differentiate between a phobia and a fear:

Physical Symptoms

Physical phobia symptoms include a rapid heartbeat, hot flashes, dizziness, and nausea. Additionally, phobias elicit intense and irrational fear even when you are not in danger. On the other hand, regular fear causes milder physical symptoms, such as a heightened state of alertness.

Psychological Symptoms

When triggered, phobias can create a sense of losing control or gasping for breath, or you may even feel like you are “losing it.” Regular fears cause worry too, but not to the same intense levels as reactions to a phobia trigger.

My family still forces me to fly, hoping I will become desensitized, but flying has only worsened my aerophobia.

How Do I Overcome My Phobia?

Here are some tips that can help you to overcome phobias:

Talk to Someone

You can confide in a friend or a family member about your phobia. Alternatively, you can call a  hotline to talk to someone who cares. Journaling about your phobia can also help manage it.

Join a Support Group

Listening to other people share their experiences with phobias can be comforting. Support groups let you know that you are not alone — together, we rise and heal. Support groups remind us that others have walked a similiar path and found hope and recovery.

Work On Your Anxiety Disorders

Challenge yourself to gradually lower your anxiety levels through exercises like journaling, mindfulness, and relaxation techniques.

Educate Yourself on Your Phobia

When triggered, you may experience a panic attack, extreme fear, or anxiety symptoms.
When triggered, you may experience a panic attack, extreme fear, or anxiety symptoms.

Learn more about your phobias and triggers. Understanding what ticks you off can help you better manage your anxiety surrounding the phobia.

Don’t Let Your Phobias Hold You Down — Seek Help Now!

If your struggle with phobias is causing significant distress in your daily life, it may be time to seek professional help. Your therapist may recommend one or more of these treatments:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is talk therapy that helps people with phobias identify and challenge negative thought patterns related to triggers. CBT aims to replace these with rational and positive thoughts.

Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy gradually exposes the person to their triggers in a controlled and safe environment. Over time, they become desensitized to their fear response.


Health experts may recommend medication to manage anxiety symptoms in some extreme phobia cases. Commonly used drugs include benzodiazepines.

More Resources

If you are hesitant about seeking help for phobias or mental health challenges, remember that you are not alone. Mental health struggles, including phobias, are common and affect people from all walks of life. Seeking treatment for a phobia demonstrates your courage to overcome and your commitment to personal growth.

Do not be afraid to take a step toward healing, and know that there are caring professionals ready to guide you toward a brighter future and a healthier you.

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