Spiders! Snakes! Blood! 13! – Specific Phobias: Where They Come From and What You Can Do About Them

– Posted in: Phobias

Dogs! Mice! Needles! Insects! Cuts! Heights!

The list goes on and on. These are all known as Specific Phobias, and they are all the butt of many jokes.

But they are not a joke to many, many people. It is estimated by the National Institute of Mental Health that 19 million Americans have some sort of Specific Phobia.

A Specific Phobia is a type of Anxiety Disorder. It is a strong, irrational fear of something that poses little or no actual danger.

There are many Specific Phobias. Acrophobia is a fear of heights. You may be able to ski the world’s tallest mountains but not be able to go above the 3rd floor of an office building. You may be able to drive a car but be unable to enter an elevator. Other common phobias involve tunnels, highway driving, water, flying, animals and blood.

What exactly are Specific Phobias? What are the causes? How are they treated? Continue reading for answers to these and other questions (and a comic bonus!).

What exactly is a Specific Phobia?

A strong, irrational and involuntary fear reaction

There are three kinds of Phobias categorized under Anxiety Disorders: Agoraphobia, Social Phobia, and Specific Phobias. Specific phobias cause some people to have very strong, irrational, involuntary fear reactions that lead them to avoid common everyday places, situations or objects even though they logically know there isn’t any threat of danger. The fear doesn’t make any sense, but nothing seems to be able to stop it. 

The key to the fear reactions of Specific Phobias is the strong, irrational, and involuntary reactions in the presence of or the anticipation of a specific place, object or situation. The Specific Phobia sufferer knows that their reaction is irrational, but even simply thinking about it can cause extreme anxiety.

What are the symptoms of a Specific Phobia?

Avoiding what you are afraid of

People with Specific Phobias try to avoid what they are afraid of. This avoidance is a key feature of the Anxiety Disorders. If a feared object or situation cannot be avoided, a person may experience:

  • Panic and fear
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trembling 
  • A strong desire to get away

When confronted with the feared situation or object, they may even have a panic attack — the abrupt onset of intense fear or terror in which people feel like they are losing control, unable to breathe or having a heart attack.

What’s the difference between normal anxiety and a Specific Phobia?

If you’re human, you have anxiety

Humans are built to have anxiety. The fear response has helped our species survive for as long as it has. Normal fear and apprehensiveness protects us from many dangerous situations, heightens our senses, and causes us to gather our wits and strength for difficult situations.

However, there is a big difference between “normal” anxiety and a Specific Phobia. Some examples are:

  • Normal: Feeling queasy while climbing a tall ladder. Phobia: Refusing to attend your best friend’s wedding because it’s on the 25th floor of a hotel.
  • Normal: Worrying about taking off in an airplane during a lightening storm. Phobia: Turning down a big promotion because it involves air travel.
  • Normal: Feeling anxious about your neighbor’s pit bull. Phobia: Avoiding visiting any homes of your neighbors for fear of seeing a dog.
  • Normal: Disgust at seeing a cockroach in your kitchen. Phobia: Avoiding an outdoor barbecue for fear of mosquitos.
  • Normal: Dislike of having blood drawn. Phobia: Passing out when having blood drawn.

What causes Specific Phobias?

No single reason for Specific Phobias

As with most of the Anxiety Disorders, there is no single known cause of Specific Phobias. Scientists believe that phobias can be traced to a combination of genetic tendencies, brain chemistry, and other biological, psychological and environmental factors. Specific Phobias can develop at any time, but are more likely to develop in childhood and adolescence. They are slightly more prevalent in women than in men.

It is known that Specific Phobias run in families for both genetic and environmental reasons. Traumatic events often trigger the development of Specific Phobias. I have cynophobia, the fear of dogs, from a traumatic event where I was attacked by dogs in my childhood. 

Evolutionary Psychologists and others speculate that certain fears are built in, such as the fear of snakes and high places. Even babies demonstrate these fears. The fear of blood and open spaces may have helped our ancestors avoid dangerous situations. Evolutionary Psychologists think that these fears have had a role in preserving humans over the millennia.

What are some common phobias?

Common phobias

The list of Specific Phobias ranges in the hundreds, some silly and some very real. And many phobias have several different names, depending on which language the root of the word is drawn from. 
For example, Ailurophobia is the fear of cats. “Ailuro” is the Greek word for cat. Synonyms include Aelurophobia (a different spelling), Elurophobia (another different spelling), Felinophobia (from “Felinus,” Latin for cat), and Gatophobia (from “Gato,” Spanish for cat). 
Among the more common phobias are:

  • Achluophobia or Scotophobia — Fear of darkness
  • Acrophobia — Fear of heights.
  • Aichmophobia — Fear of needles or pointed objects.
  • Amaxophobia — Fear of riding in a car
  • Arachnephobia or Arachnophobia — Fear of spiders
  • Aviophobia, Aviatophobia or Pteromerhanophobia — Fear of flying
  • Brontophobia, Ceraunophobia or Keraunophobia — Fear of thunder and lightning
  • Claustrophobia — Fear of confined spaces
  • Cynophobia — Fear of dogs or rabies
  • Dermatophobia — Fear of skin lesions or cuts
  • Hydrophobia or Potamophobia — Fear of water, rivers or running water
  • Ophidiophobia — Fear of snakes
  • Hemophobia, Hemaphobia or Hematophobia — Fear of blood
  • Insectophobia — Fear of insects
  • Kenophobia — Fear of voids or empty spaces
  • Lygophobia — Fear of darkness
  • Musophobia or Muriphobia — Fear of mice
  • Oneirophobia — Fear of dreams
  • Pathophobia or Bacteriophobia — Fear of bacteria, germs or disease
  • Somniphobia — Fear of sleep
  • Spermatophobia or Spermophobia — Fear of germs
  • Stenophobia — Fear of narrow things or places
  • Triskaidekaphobia or Terdekaphobia — Fear of the number 13
  • Trypanophobia — Fear of injections

What are the treatments for Specific Phobias?

People are ashamed of phobias

According to Isaac Marks, a psychiatrist at the Institute of Psychiatry in London and an authority on fear and Anxiety, phobias are still not taken seriously enough. He says, “People with phobias are often told to pull themselves together. They are ashamed of their phobias and try to hide them.” 

Fortunately, the tide is turning as awareness increases and people begin to take the treatment of Specific Phobias more seriously. New ways of thinking about phobias are producing treatments that are inexpensive, effective and that do not take a long time.

A type of therapy called Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy has proven to be a very effective treatment for Specific Phobias. It involves helping people become gradually more comfortable with situations that frighten them. This is similar to another treatment, Exposure Therapy, which exposes a person to the feared object or situation gradually. Relaxation and breathing techniques are also helpful.

There is no proven drug treatment for Specific Phobias, but certain medications may help reduce symptoms of Anxiety before one faces a phobic situation.

A funny bonus

Funny videoAs you know, I take Specific Phobias very seriously. They cause disruptions in a person’s life that can lead to more serious mental disorders such as Agoraphobia, Social Phobia and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Moreover, many people self-medicate for their Specific Phobia with alcohol and drugs (illegal or legal). This self-medication can lead to many other problems, as well.

That being said, I was sent a hilarious video by a friend that spoofs a Fear Management group therapy session. The phobias presented in the group are silly and made up, such as the fear of repetitions in speech, or barking like a dog when hearing others tell their problems. 

I offer this bonus as a bit of comic relief after a very serious discussion:


What do you think?

As mentioned, I have a fear of dogs (especially big dogs). In addition, I admit to a fear of confined spaces and a fear of heights. I have had these for as long as I can remember.

  • Do you have any Specific Phobias?
  • Have you been able to rid yourself of a Specific Phobia? How did you do it?
  • Do you think the video was appropriate?

As always, your comments are welcome!

If you have enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to this blog, either via RSS or email at the top of your screen. It’s free! I would also appreciate your sharing it using your favorite social media, such as StumbleUpon or Digg. Just click the little green “ShareThis” button at the bottom of this post.

Resources used in this post:

Anxiety Disorders Association of America. (2007). Specific Phobias. Retrieved June 23, 2008 from Anxiety Disorders Association of America Web site (PDF): http://adaa.org/bookstore/Brochures/phobias_adaa.pdf

National Institute of Mental Health. (2006, December 12). Facts About Phobias. Retrieved August 26, 2008 from Psych Central Web site: http://psychcentral.com/lib/2006/facts-about-phobias/

National Institute of Mental Health. (2006, December 12). Specific Phobias. Retrieved August 26, 2008 from Psych Central Web site: http://psychcentral.com/lib/2006/specific-phobias/

Saul, Helen. (1993, December 18). Phobias: is there a way out? Retrieved August 26, 2008 from NewScientist Web site: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg14019043.700-phobias-is-there-a-way-out.html

Further reading:

The Phobia List 

The Phobias Page 

Related posts:


21 comments… add one
Sandy Naidu August 28, 2008, 12:18 am

Interesting…Did not realise that there could be a ‘fear of sleep’ as well. Now that I think about it, it kind of makes sense.

Mike August 28, 2008, 12:25 am

Thank you for your comment, Sandy!

Yes, there are many who have nightmares or other sleep problems who are afraid to go to sleep. It is a fairly common condition with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It’s also common for those people with PTSD to be afraid of dreaming, as well.

Jennie August 28, 2008, 2:16 am

I think it’s interesting what you say about phobias leading to other anxiety disorders, I think if I looked back I would find they all link up quite well which gives me something to think about.
I’m petrified of spiders, and I’m still very afraid of the dark and going to sleep. as far as I can tell the dark and sleeping have to do with my hideous nightmares. These have been around as long as I can remember. I also have what I consider to be aquired phobias of the dentist and fire that can be traced back to specific instances. I have been able to work on those. I think it comes down to where the fear came from in the first place. if you can track that down, you can start to make headway.

Ava Semerau August 29, 2008, 1:10 am

Spiders and snakes freak me out, and I’m not too proud to admit, I visible cringe in the presence of any reptile. Clinically, I’m not phobic since it doesn’t truly impact my day to day world, but you’d never guess that when something slithers across the walking path in front of me!

Thanks for an informative post – hehe and a good video to boot!

Ava Semerau, author of And God Was Pleased

A Problogger entry

Mike August 29, 2008, 1:23 am

Jennie, thank you for the comment. Yes, accumulate enough specific phobias and they will start turning into other Anxiety Disorders, particularly Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

But you hit the nail on the head. The process of CBT therapy starts with discovering where the fear came from, then they work through it step by step to expose you to more of the fear, dispelling it along the way.

Mike August 29, 2008, 1:28 am

Thank you, Ava, for the comment!

I have a dislike of insects but a real phobia against cockroaches. I know exactly when it started — it’s a funny tale, but too long to tell here. Unfortunately, our outside shrubbery is rife with what I call “yard roaches.” They even get on the cars and take rides with us. And let one fly onto me, and I do a wild dance, screaming all the time!

But like you, my little phobias are not enough to make a real impact on my life. They are just inconveniences, and potential sources of great embarrassment!

Scam August 31, 2008, 6:58 am

My fear of flying is so intense that it currently occupies my thoughts all the time. I honestly don’t believe there is anything I can do that will help me to overcome a fear that I feel so intensely :(

Mike August 31, 2008, 2:26 pm

Hi, Scam, and thanks for the comment!

Have you tried any sort of mental health professional? Maybe they could give you some sort of tips to help you, or at least a medication that will help you get through a flight.

Or maybe try to find some alternative means of transport, such as the train. It will take longer, but you will arrive in much better shape!

Scam August 31, 2008, 3:36 pm

I’ve thought of 2 possibilities so far.

The train is one, but is more costly and will take a week to just get there and back.

The second is some sort of hypnosis but I am unsure how effective that is.

Mike August 31, 2008, 11:02 pm

Hi, Scam,
Oh well, scratch (maybe) the train. I don’t know how effective hypnosis might be. I had a friend years ago who had hypnosis for weight loss and did very well with it. It’s worth investigating, anyway.

Lee September 1, 2008, 5:12 am

Well, I’ve got to try something, haven’t I!?!

nonnie October 22, 2010, 5:39 am

Wowww I wish whoever keeps posting these pictures of spiders would stop. When clicking on several articles that is what was on the page!! Ughhh enough for me to find another self help site. My mother was severely frightened of spiders and knowing that I was also she forced me to kill these huge hairy beasts for her. My sons also inherited the fear, but I never forced them to kill one for me? Could this be a bit genetic? Any insects cause me fear and I also have my own cockroach story to share though its far to embarrassing. After moving to the country….had never seen a roach in the city?….we bought a cedar sided home that the what they called wood roaches loved. They love the big old oaks too…and once when missing one of my cats had gone out at night with a flashlight could see them all hanging on to all of the tall grass. What traumatized me to no end is that these huge things fly!! Twice I felt something crawling up and down my legs while sleeping….guess what it was??? My advice..never ever wear a nightgown if you choose to live in the country! Having wooded acreage although beautiful to look at is not what its cracked up to be! I would trade that big house with land for a one bedroom apt in the city any day.

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