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Medically reviewed by Last updated on Feb 28, 2024.

What is a Phobia?

Harvard Health Publishing

A phobia is a persistent, excessive, unrealistic fear of an object, person, animal, activity or situation. It is a type of anxiety disorder. A person with a phobia either tries to avoid the thing that triggers the fear, or endures it with great anxiety and distress. 

Some phobias are very specific and limited. For example, a person may fear only spiders (arachnophobia) or cats (ailurophobia). In this case, the person lives relatively free of anxiety by avoiding the thing he or she fears. Some phobias cause trouble in a wider variety of places or situations. For example, symptoms of acrophobia (fear of heights) can be triggered by looking out the window of an office building or by driving over a high bridge. The fear of confined spaces (claustrophobia) can be triggered by riding in an elevator or by using a small restroom. People with these phobias may need to alter their lives drastically. In extreme cases, the phobia may dictate the person's employment, job location, driving route, recreational and social activities, or home environment. 

There are three major types of phobia: 

Childhood phobias occur most commonly between the ages of 5 and 9, and tend to last a short while. Most longer-lasting phobias begin later in life, especially in people in their 20s. Adult phobias tend to last for many years, and they are less likely to go away on their own, unless they are treated. Phobia can increase an adult's risk of other types of psychiatric illness, especially other anxiety disorders, depression and substance abuse. 



The symptoms of phobia are: 


A mental health professional is likely to ask about current symptoms and family history, particularly whether other family members have had phobias. You may want to report any experience or trauma that may have set off the phobia – for example, a dog attack leading to a fear of dogs. 

It may be helpful to discuss how you react – your thoughts, feelings and physical symptoms – when you are confronted with the thing you fear. Also, describe what you do to avoid fearful situations, and how the phobia affects your daily life, including your job and your personal relationships. 

Your doctor will ask about depression and substance use because many people with phobias have these problems as well.

Expected Duration

In children, specific phobias can be short-term problems that disappear within a few months. In adults, about 80% of new phobias become chronic (long-term) conditions that do not go away without proper treatment.


There is no way to prevent a phobia from starting. However, treatment can reduce the negative impact of the disorder.


Treatment usually includes some combination of psychotherapy and medication depending on the type of phobia: 

When To Call a Professional

Make an appointment to see your doctor as soon as possible if you are troubled by fears or anxieties that are disturbing your peace of mind; interfering with your personal relationships; or preventing you from functioning normally at home, school or work.


The outlook is very good for people with specific phobia or social phobia. According to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, about 75% of people with specific phobias overcome their fears through cognitive-behavioral therapy, while 80% of those with social phobia find relief from medication, cognitive-behavioral therapy or a combination. 

When agoraphobia occurs with panic disorder, the prognosis is also good. With appropriate treatment, 30% to 40% of patients become free of symptoms for extended periods, while another 50% continue to experience only mild symptoms that do not significantly affect daily life.

Additional Info

American Psychiatric Association

National Institute of Mental Health

American Psychological Association

Anxiety and Depression Association of America

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.