Specific Phobia

Specific phobias are common. The estimated lifetime prevalence of social phobia in the USA is 11%.

Sub-clinical fears are even more common and are thought to affect half the population. Examples of sub-clinical fears include fear of heights, animals, flying and needles.

Specific phobia is one of the best understood psychological disorders. They are also one of the easiest and most successful to treat. Success rates as high as 90% are achieved for treatment of certain specific phobias.

Studies by psychologists have shown that 9 out of 10 of individuals achieve clinically significant long-lasting improvement in as little as one session of behavioural treatment.

Specific phobia is common, treatable and well-understood but people with specific phobias rarely present for treatment. This is very surprising.

Why do individuals with specific phobia seek treatment so infrequently?

It is thought by psychologists that it is because this disorder is less impairing and causes less problems than other psychological disorders. It is relatively easy for people to avoid their phobias, because they are well defined, circumscribed and limited.

In the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders version IV (DSM-IV) specific phobia is defined as a: "marked and persistent fear that is excessive or unreasonable, cued by the presence or anticipation of a specific object or situation."

In addition the person must:

  • Experience the fear nearly every time he or she encounters the phobic stimulus (this must take the form of a panic attack or of crying, tantrums or freezing in children)
  • Recognise that the fear is unreasonable or excessive (in children this criterion is not needed for the diagnosis)
  • Avoid the situation or endure exposure to it with extreme distress
  • Experience significant impairment in functioning or clinically significant distress about having the phobia
  • Have had the problem for at least 6 months (only a requirement for individuals who are under 18 years of age)
  • Not have another DSM-IV disorder that better accounts for the specific phobia symptoms

Specific phobia types

There are many with weird and unusual names. Examples:

  • Ailurophobia- Fear of cats
  • Atychiphobia- Fear of failure
  • Bathmophobia- Fear of stairs or steep slopes
  • Caligynephobia- Fear of beautiful women
  • Cnidophobia- Fear of stings
  • Consecotaleophobia- Fear of chopsticks
  • Dentophobia- Fear of dentists
  • Didaskaleinophobia- Fear of going to school
  • Enochlophobia- Fear of crowds
  • Ergophobia- Fear of work
  • Gerascophobia- Fear of growing old
  • Harpaxophobia- Fear of being robbed
  • Lygophobia- Fear of darkness
  • Macrophobia- Fear of long waits
  • Ophidiophobia- Fear of snakes
  • Paraskavedekatriaphobia- Fear of Friday the 13th
  • Rhytiphobia- Fear of getting wrinkles
  • Selachophobia- Fear of sharks 
  • Thantophobia- Fear of death or dying
  • Emmiphobia- Fear of the great mole rat

See http://www.phobialist.com with more than 500 phobias listed. This list was compiled by Fredd Culbertson

Top ten fears in reverse order: 

  • Dogs (10)
  • Being alone at night
  • Thunder and lightning
  • Spiders and insects
  • Being trapped in a small space
  • Flying
  • Rodents
  • Heights
  • Giving a speech
  • Snakes (1)

Various facts about specific phobias

The mean age of onset is about 16 years.

Specific phobias consistently affect females more than males.

Specific phobias run in families.

Familial transmission tended to be stronger for females than males.

For most specific phobias, the typical response to encountering a phobic stimulus is a panic attack or a similar, panic-like reaction.

The 10 commonest symptoms experienced by individuals with specific phobias during exposure to a phobic stimulus (in order) were: 

  1. Fast heartbeat
  2. Tight muscles
  3. An urge to run
  4. Rapid breathing
  5. Feeling of doom
  6. Feeling fidgety
  7. Trembling
  8. Shortness of breath
  9. Cold hands or feet
  10. Pounding sensation in the chest

These symptoms are similar to those experienced with unexpected panic attacks but the rank order of particular symptoms differed.

Specific phobia was only anxiety disorder that was not associated with heightened anxiety sensitivity compared to the non anxious group.

Case example

"I’m so afraid of flying that I can’t travel, even though I’d like to."