Specific Phobia

Anxiety disorders are characterized by physical, cognitive, and behavioral symptoms of anxiety like palpitations, restlessness, nausea, avoidance, pessimistic thoughts, worry about future events, etc. Specific phobias are a type of anxiety disorder.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a state of mood in which an individual feels unexpected fear, dread, and uneasiness and causes restlessness, tension, sweating, and also increases the heartbeat.

Types of Anxiety Disorder

Anxiety disorders are marked by unrealistic, irrational fears or anxieties that cause significant distress and impairments in functioning.

According to DSM-5, following are major the types of anxiety disorder are-

What is Phobia?

A phobia is an intense, irrational, disproportionate fear of any object or situation which may or may not pose any actual threat. It is not occasional but a persistent feeling accompanied by an urge to flee and avoid the situation or object.

Different Types of Phobias

Major types are:

Specific Phobia

Specific phobias are irrational and persistent fears of certain objects or animals. In specific phobia, the anxiety is not free-floating or occurs unexpectedly but is associated with the phobic stimulus or cue. It is also important to understand that the fear is disproportionate and the phobic object always provokes immediate anxiety. Avoidance is the core characteristic of phobias.

Sub-types of Specific Phobia

Following are the major sub-types of specific phobia:

There are four subtypes of specific phobia along with other specific phobias. As the name suggests, the animal phobia sub-type includes phobia of snakes, dogs, spiders, insects etc. Situational phobia comprises the phobia of being in certain situations like being in public transport, tunnels, bridges, elevators, or involved in activities like driving, flying, etc. The natural environment sub-type includes phobia of heights, water, storms, etc. One of the most researched subtypes of phobia is blood injection phobia which is associated with seeing blood or an injury, receiving an injection, or seeing a person in a wheelchair. The 'other' sub-type of phobia includes phobia of vomiting, choking, space phobia, etc.

Symptoms of Specific Phobia

All anxiety disorders, including specific phobia, show a common range of symptoms. Some of the symptoms are anticipatory anxiety, excessive or irrational fear, avoidance, increase in heartbeat, sweating, etc.

The symptoms are divided into three categories i.e.,

  • Physical,
  • Cognitive, and
  • Behavioural.

The physical symptoms include bodily-related symptoms like heart palpitations and sweating. The cognitive symptoms include thoughts, and the behavioral symptoms include the reaction to the specific phobic object like avoidance and escape.

Etiologic of Specific Phobia

Similar to any other psychological disorder, a specific phobia can be understood by considering multiple perspectives and models like psychoanalytical, behavioral, cognitive, and biological.

Psychoanalytical Causes

According to the psychoanalytical view, specific phobias of certain objects or situations are due to internal conflicts or intra-psychic conflicts threatening to surface. Therefore, phobias are a defense against anxiety. It is seen that the anxiety is displaced onto some external object or situation, which becomes the phobic cue.

Behavioral Causes

When a traumatic event occurs in a feared situation, such as a car accident while driving can lead to learning of phobia through simple association or conditioning, called classical conditioning. In other situations, operant conditioning may aid in learning phobias. When a feared or tense situation is present, people try to avoid that particular object or situation, which makes them feel better temporarily. This pleasant feeling acts as a reinforcement that sustains the phobia. Lastly, behaviorists strongly believe that phobias are learned through observation, imitation, and role modelling, i.e., vicarious learning. A child watching their grandfather be afraid of lizards might imitate and learn animal phobia, i.e., specific phobia of lizards.

Cognitive Causes

According to the cognitive view, people with specific phobia tend to misinterpret neutral or ambiguous stimuli as threatening, which leads to a chain of thoughts making them more anxious. They may or may not do it consciously, but it is seen that this process is automatic. People with anxiety disorders also show an increased (selective) attention to threat cues in their surroundings.

Biological Causes

Like any other disorder, genes and heritability play a role in increasing susceptibility to any disorder. Specific phobia also has a genetic component. Along with genetics, the temperament of the child, i.e., behaviourally inhibited children, show a greater tendency to develop an anxiety disorder. It is also seen that people with a specific phobia or any other anxiety disorder have an overactive sympathetic nervous system, i.e., the fight or flight system. It is said that they show autonomic over-activity. There is also an evolutionary perspective on developing a phobia. Seligman proposed that to aid survival and protected selves from danger, phobia of snakes and other threatening objects and situations have come into existence. This view suggests that people are inherently prepared to fear certain objects.

Treatment of Specific Phobia

The treatments present for specific phobia include exposure-based techniques like-

Most of the techniques are used in an integrative manner. The exposure-based treatments are based on principles of classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning, all of which are a part of the behavioral perspective.

Other techniques include-


Specific phobia is an anxiety disorder. Many people tend to say that they have a phobia of a particular object or situation, even when it is fear. The key difference is in terms of persistence and proportion. Phobia is persistent, disproportionate, and irrational. According to DSM-5, specific phobia is more prevalent in females than males. Specific phobia can coexist with other anxiety disorders and can be a dilapidating condition. Different perspectives try to shed light on the etiology, and there are some of the most effective and well-known ways to manage specific phobia.


  • Bruce T.J. Sanderson W.C. Specific Phobias: Clinical Applications of Evidence-Based Psychotherapy.
  • Hooley J.M., Butcher J.N., Nock M.K., Mineka S. Abnormal Psychology.

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