Fears and Phobias

Fear is a normal emotion, experienced when a person senses danger. Fear includes physical, mental, and behavioral (bee-HAY-vyor-al) reactions. Certain childhood fears are common and normal.

A phobia is an intense, persistent fear of a particular object or situation. Phobias can be narrowly focused or more general in nature. A broad spectrum of phobias has been reported. Social phobia is an intense, persistent fear of being painfully embarrassed in a social setting. Agoraphobia is fear of being in any situation that might provoke a panic attack * or from which escape might be difficult.

Cross-section of a brain showing the amygdala and caudate nucleus—the structures believed to be linked to negative emotions such as fear and anger. The amygdala is believed to be fully developed by the time a baby is born.

Cross-section of a brain showing the amygdala and caudate nucleus—the structures believed to be linked to negative emotions such as fear and anger. The amygdala is believed to be fully developed by the time a baby is born. The prefrontal cortex (the front of the brain), where thinking and planning take place, takes longer to mature. This may explain why it takes time for children to learn how to control their fears.
Illustration by Frank Forney. © 2016 Cengage Learning®.

Hannah's Story

Whenever 15-year-old Hannah entered a building with more than two stories, she checked to see if the building had stairs. Hannah was intensely afraid of riding in elevators. Her friends teased her, and she readily admitted that her fears were “silly.” But when an elevator door closed, Hannah began to sweat and her heart started to beat faster. “It's like I'm trapped,” she told her friends. “As if I'll never, ever escape.” It's likely that Hannah is experiencing claustrophobia, or fear of enclosed or tight spaces.

What Is Fear?

Fear is the emotion that people feel when they sense that they are in danger. It is a protective emotion, which signals danger and helps a person to prepare for and cope with it. Fear includes physical, mental, and behavioral * reactions.

The physical reaction to fear is called the “fight or flight” response. Fight or flight is an involuntary response, a response that a person cannot control consciously but that is controlled by the body's nervous system * . It is the body's way of preparing either to run from danger or to fight. The heart beats faster, and the blood pressure and breathing rate increase. Oxygen-rich blood rushes to the large muscles of the body, which are tensing to prepare to fight. The pupils of the eyes grow larger to help the eyes scan for danger. Epinephrine * , also called adrenaline * , is released to prepare the body for quick action. Sweat is produced to cool the body.

Mentally, fear triggers thoughts about the danger or threat that the person senses. These thoughts may size up the danger, anticipate what might happen, or imagine ways to avoid harm. Behaviorally, the person may startle or jump and then run, freeze, or get ready to fight.

Different Kinds of Fear

Fear and anxiety

Fear and anxiety (ang-ZY-e-tee) are similar emotions but with an important difference. Fear is the emotion that people feel when a danger is actually present, whereas anxiety is the fear connected with worrying about danger that might happen.

Childhood fears

Certain fears are common and normal during childhood. In fact, all children have fears at times during their lives. Because so much of the world is new to children, they may fear certain things until they understand them better or are better able to cope. Fear serves a protective purpose, keeping children appropriately cautious while they learn about what is safe and what is dangerous.

Fears of animals, loud noises, or being in water are common in very young children, who are still learning to understand the information their senses are gathering. Babies as young as eight months old may fear strangers. This is a sign that the baby is able to recognize his parents and to tell them apart from strangers.

What Is Scary to Children?

Most school-age children report that they have between five and seven fears at any one time. Here are some of the most common childhood fears and the age they usually occur:

Fear + Distress or Fear + Excitement?

The feelings and sensations people get when they are afraid or anxious are similar to the excited thrill people feel when they go on a scary ride at an amusement park or see a scary movie. Some people actually like the feeling, whereas others do not. Research psychologists (sy-KOL-o-jists) have described anxiety as a complex emotion that is made up of fear plus one or more other emotions, such as distress, anger, excitement, shyness, or guilt. Anxiety that is made up of fear plus excitement will be experienced differently from anxiety that is made up of fear plus distress.

Young children often fear imaginary creatures such as monsters, ghosts, and witches. Because imagination is developing at a rapid pace but the young child has not yet developed the ability to tell the difference between what is real and what is make-believe, these imaginary things can seem dangerous. Children tend to outgrow fears of imaginary creatures as soon as they are able to understand the difference between what is real and what is pretend.

Older children are more likely to fear real-life things such as burglars, being hurt or lost, or natural disasters such as earthquakes and extreme weather like hurricanes. These children may need reassurance and support from parents while they learn to cope with worry and fear and gain confidence in dealing with life's challenges.

Learned fears

Fearful parents tend to have fearful children. Without realizing it, parents may teach children to be too fearful or cautious of certain things, not so much by what they say but by how they act. If a mother always crosses the street to avoid dogs and gets a little pale when a dog is nearby, chances are the child will learn to be afraid of dogs. Research has found that fears or worries can run in families, and it may be that certain fear reactions are inherited.

Fears can be “unlearned.” If the fearful child watches another child calmly approach and pat a dog, she is learning that petting a dog can be safe and pleasant. By watching and then learning to go toward the dog slowly herself, with the right adult support, she can learn to overcome her fear of dogs. When leaving home, even to go to school, is too scary or when people avoid important activities because of fearfulness, professional help may be needed to help “unlearn” fears.

Are All Fears Outgrown?

Most childhood fears pass with time, maturing, and support from caring adults. Childhood fears do not get better by teasing, threatening, or forcing the child to meet the feared object or situation. Such remedies are likely to produce shame and lower self-esteem, and they may even worsen fear. The protective emotion of fear is not outgrown. People feel fear throughout life whenever they sense danger.

When to Get Help for Fears

Sometimes a normal childhood fear can become intense or last well beyond the age when a child usually outgrows it. If this happens, or if fears cause so much distress that they interfere with everyday life, professional help may be needed to help get over fears.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy * is often helpful. It may involve teaching coping skills, supporting the child's gradual approach to the feared situation, and coaching parents to provide needed reinforcement and support.

What Are Phobias?

A phobia (FO-bee-a) is an intense fear of a specific thing, such as dogs or spiders or riding in elevators. Phobias are the most commonly observed of the anxiety disorders. With a phobia, the fear a person feels is out of proportion to the real danger. The person with a phobia is very worried about the possibility of seeing the feared object or experiencing the feared situation. People with phobias may go to great lengths to avoid any situation that might bring them face to face with the object of their fear. Because of all the worry and avoidance, a phobia can interfere with a person's everyday life.

Estimates from the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health are that between 5 to 12 percent, or about 6 million, Americans report phobias. Different phobias tend to develop in different age groups. For example, younger children have phobias associated with animals and weather-related events such as storms. Teenagers tend to develop height phobias (acrophobia) and phobias related to enclosed spaces (claustrophobia).

Social phobias

At some point in their lives, people find themselves in a social situation that makes them uncomfortable. But phobias involve more than social discomfort and can take several forms. For individuals with a social phobia, the exposure to a particular event provokes such enormous anxiety that it can trigger a panic attack. A person with a social phobia will do almost anything to avoid similar social situations.

Social phobias are often associated with persistent fears of humiliation or embarrassment. These occur commonly in situations such as walking into a classroom or even leaving one's home. Individuals may feel as if everyone is looking at them. This phobia often persists. It may intensify to the point that when affected people venture into social situations, they spend all of their time alone, attempting to avoid other people.


When exposed to the trigger for a specific phobia, individuals may experience elevated levels of anxiety, including a panic attack. People with specific fears, such as Hannah with her fear of elevators, may know that their fear might be seen as “silly” or “irrational,” by others, but the fear still produces significant distress for them. Sometimes, particularly with children, affected individuals may not understand that their fears are excessive or unwarranted.


Traumatic events often contribute to the development of specific phobias. Social phobias often begin in the mid-teens, with the average onset between the ages of 15 and 20 years. Some social phobias begin in childhood, but they can start at any age. Phobias may begin when two unrelated events are associated in someone's mind. Research has shown that social phobias may have a hereditary component.

Examples of Phobias

The specific phobias that affect people are numerous and varied.

Ablutophobia (a-BLOO-toe-FObee- a) is a fear of washing or bathing; zoophobia is an unrealistic fear of animals. Other common (and uncommon) phobias include the following: nn Arachibutyrophobia (a-RACH-e-buti- ro-FO-bee-a): fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth

Psychological Testing

Noted psychologist Sigmund Freud attributed the fear of heights to having a fear of something else that was repressed in childhood. As the person ages, the fear is expressed as acrophobia.

Other psychologists have attempted to identify reasons for acrophobia but have been unsuccessful.

Famous People with Acrophobia

Sheryl Crow, a Grammy-winning country western singer, has openly expressed a fear of heights. Woody Allen lists acrophobia as one of his many fears, and Tobey Maguire, actor in the acclaimed Spiderman series, admits to having had to overcome the fear of heights before filming many of the scenes.


Charles Darwin (1809–1882), who developed the theory of evolution, is one of the best-known figures in the history of modern science. Many people do not know, however, that Darwin suffered throughout adulthood from an array of physical symptoms that greatly limited his social activities and later caused many physicians to speculate about what might have been the problem. Thomas Barloon and Russell Noyes, Jr., writing in The Journal of the American Medical Association, suggested that Darwin may have suffered from agoraphobia. This interpretation would partly explain Darwin's secluded lifestyle and his resistance to meeting people and speaking before groups.

What Are Common Types of Phobias?

The most common variety of phobia involves social situations. Social phobia is a persistent fear of humiliation or embarrassment in social settings. Closely related to social phobia is agoraphobia (literally “fear of the marketplace”), which is a fear of being in locations or situations from which escape might be difficult or embarrassing. People suffering from agoraphobia believe that they may suddenly develop a panic attack. To cope, people with agoraphobia avoid crowds or situations they find threatening. When they cannot do so, they are often filled with anxiety.

People with agoraphobia may limit themselves to being in places they think of as safe. Any movement beyond this safety zone leads to mounting worry and nervousness. They may worry about whether they could escape quickly from a certain place if they should begin to have a panic attack there. People with agoraphobia often avoid being on busy streets or in crowded classes or stores for fear that they might feel trapped if they start to have a panic attack. Gradually, fewer and fewer places feel “safe.” Some people reach the point where they are too frightened to leave their homes. Others still go out, but doing so causes great distress, and they may insist that family members or friends go with them. Such self-imposed limits can make it difficult for people to get on with their lives at school and work.

Other specific phobias, such as arachnophobia (fear of spiders), acrophobia (fear of heights), or hydrophobia (fear of water), can cause people to avoid specific situations in which they might confront what frightens them.

How Are Phobias Treated?

Several prescription medications are used to treat social phobias. People with specific phobias may also benefit from psychotherapy *

See also Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders: Overview • Panic Disorder • Psychopharmacology


Books and Articles

Bourne, Edmund. The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, Sixth Ed. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2015.

Latta, Sara. Scared Stiff: Everything You Need to Know About 50 Famous Phobias. San Francisco, CA: Zest Books, 2014.

McCabe, Randi E., and Irena Milosevic. Phobias: The Psychology of Irrational Fear. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2015.


Fear of Flying. “Fear of Heights – Heights Phobia.” http://www.fearofflyinganxiety.com/fear-of-heights/ (accessed March 20, 2016).

FearOf.Net – The Ultimate List of Phobias and Fears. http://www.fearof.net (accessed March 20, 2016)


American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 3615 Wisconsin Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20016-3007. Phone: 202-9667300. Website: http://www.aacap.org (accessed March 20, 2016).

American Counseling Association. 6101 Stevenson Ave., Suite 600. Alexandria, VA 22304. Phone: 800-347-6647. Website: http://www.counseling.org (accessed March 20, 2016).

American Psychiatric Association. 1000 Wilson Blvd., Suite 1825, Arlington, VA 22209. Telephone: 703-907-7300. Website: http://www.psychiatry.org (accessed March 20, 2016).

American Psychological Association. 750 First St. NE, Washington, DC 20002. Toll-free: 800-374-2721. Website: http://www.apa.org (accessed March 20, 2016).

Anxiety and Depression Association of America. 8730 Georgia Ave., Suite 600, Silver Spring, MD 20910. Telephone: 240-485-1001. Website: http://www.adaa.org (accessed March 20, 2016).

National Institute of Mental Health. Science Writing, Press, and Dissemination Branch, 6001 Executive Blvd., Room 8184, MSC 9663, Bethesda, MD 20892-9663. Toll-free: 866-615-6464. Website: http://www.nimh.nih.gov (accessed March 20, 2016).

* panic attack is a period of intense fear or discomfort with a feeling of doom and a desire to escape. The person may shake, sweat, be short of breath, and experience chest pain.

* behavioral means related to the way a person acts.

* nervous system is a network of specialized tissue made of nerve cells, or neurons, that processes messages to and from different parts of the human body

* adrenaline (a-DREN-a-lin), also called epinephrine (ep-e-NEFrin), is a hormone, or chemical messenger, that is released in response to fear, anger, panic, and other emotions. It readies the body to respond to threat by increasing heart rate, breathing rate, and blood flow to the arms and legs. These and other effects prepare the body to run away or fight.

* epinephrine (eh-pih-NEH-frin) is a chemical substance produced by the body that can also be given as a medication to constrict, or narrow, small blood vessels, stimulate the heart, and cause other effects, such as helping to open narrowed airways in conditions like asthma and croup.

* cognitive-behavioral therapy (KOG-nih-tiv beHAY-vyuh-rul THAIR-uh-pee) is treatment that helps people identify negative ways of thinking and behaving and change them to more positive approaches.

* psychotherapy (sy-ko-THER-apea) is the treatment of mental and behavioral disorders by support and insight to encourage healthy behavior patterns and personality growth.

* psychotherapy (sy-ko-THER-apea) is the treatment of mental and behavioral disorders by support and insight to encourage healthy behavior patterns and personality growth.

Disclaimer:   This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.

(MLA 8th Edition)