Specific Phobia

Learning Objectives

  • Explain specific phobias
  • Describe the etiology of specific phobias

Specific Phobia

Phobia is a Greek word that means “fear.” A person diagnosed with a specific phobia (formerly known as simple phobia) experiences excessive, distressing, and persistent fear or anxiety about a specific object or situation (such as animals, enclosed spaces, elevators, or flying) (APA, 2013). Even though people realize their level of fear and anxiety in relation to the phobic stimulus is irrational, some people with a specific phobia may go to great lengths to avoid the phobic stimulus (the object or situation that triggers the fear and anxiety). Typically, the fear and anxiety a phobic stimulus elicits is disruptive to the person’s life. For example, a person with a phobia of flying might refuse to accept a job that requires frequent air travel, thus negatively affecting their career. Clinicians who have worked with people who have specific phobias have encountered many kinds of phobias, some of which are shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Specific Phobias
Phobia Feared Object or Situation
acrophobia heights
aerophobia flying
arachnophobia spiders
claustrophobia enclosed spaces
cynophobia dogs
hematophobia blood
ophidiophobia snakes
taphophobia being buried alive
trypanophobia injections
xenophobia strangers

Types of Phobias

The list of possible phobias is staggering, but four major subtypes of specific phobia are recognized: blood-injury-injection (BII) type, situational type (such as planes, elevators, or enclosed places), natural environment type for events one may encounter in nature (for example, heights, storms, and water), and animal type. A fifth category “other” includes phobias that do not fit any of the four major subtypes (for example, fears of choking, vomiting, or contracting an illness).

Most phobic reactions cause a surge of activity in the sympathetic nervous system, increased heart rate, and blood pressure, and possibly a panic attack. However, people with blood-injury-injection (BII) type phobias usually experience a marked drop in heart rate and blood pressure and may even faint. In this way, those with blood-injury-injection (BII) phobias almost always differ in their physiological reaction from people with other types of phobia (Barlow & Liebowitz, 1995; Craske, Antony, & Barlow, 2006; Hofmann, Alpers, & Pauli, 2009; Ost, 1992). BII phobia also runs in families more strongly than any phobic disorder we know (Antony & Barlow, 2002; Page & Martin, 1998). Specific phobia is one of the most common psychological disorders in the United States, with 12.5% of the population reporting a lifetime history of fears significant enough to be considered a phobia (Arrindell et al., 2003; Kessler, Berglund, et al., 2005) (see Table 1). Most people who suffer from a specific phobia tend to have multiple phobias of several types (Hofmann, Lehman, & Barlow, 1997).

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Acquisition of Phobias through Learning

Many theories suggest that phobias develop through learning. Rachman (1977) proposed that phobias can be acquired through three major learning pathways. The first pathway is through classical conditioning. As you may recall, classical conditioning is a form of learning in which a previously neutral stimulus is paired with an unconditioned stimulus (UCS) that reflexively elicits an unconditioned response (UCR), eliciting the same response through its association with the unconditioned stimulus. The response is called a conditioned response (CR). For example, a child who has been bitten by a dog may come to fear dogs because of her past association with pain. In this case, the dog bite is the UCS and the fear it elicits is the UCR. Because a dog was associated with the bite, any dog may come to serve as a conditioned stimulus, thereby eliciting fear; the fear the child experiences around dogs, then, becomes a CR.

The second pathway of phobia acquisition is through vicarious learning, such as modeling. For example, a child who observes his cousin react fearfully to spiders may later express the same fears, even though spiders have never presented any danger to him. This phenomenon has been observed in both humans and nonhuman primates (Olsson & Phelps, 2007). A study of laboratory-reared monkeys readily acquired a fear of snakes after observing wild-reared monkeys react fearfully to snakes (Mineka & Cook, 1993).

The third pathway is through verbal transmission or information. For example, a child whose parents, siblings, friends, and classmates constantly tell her how disgusting and dangerous snakes are may come to acquire a fear of snakes.

A child is standing on a glass floor of a skyscraper and hanging onto the glass wall in front of them. The city can be seen through the glass below.

Figure 1. Even though the glass floor and glass walls prevent the child from falling, they might still be frightened by the height.

Interestingly, people are more likely to develop phobias of things that do not represent much actual danger to themselves, such as animals and heights, and are less likely to develop phobias toward things that present legitimate danger in contemporary society, such as motorcycles and weapons (Öhman & Mineka, 2001). Why might this be so? One theory suggests that the human brain is evolutionarily predisposed to more readily associate certain objects or situations with fear (Seligman, 1971). This theory argues that throughout our evolutionary history, our ancestors associated certain stimuli (e.g., snakes, spiders, heights, and thunder) with potential danger. As time progressed, the mind has become adapted to more readily develop fears of these things than of others. Experimental evidence has consistently demonstrated that conditioned fears develop more readily to fear-relevant stimuli (images of snakes and spiders) than to fear-irrelevant stimuli (images of flowers and berries) (Öhman & Mineka, 2001). Such prepared learning has also been shown to occur in monkeys. In one study (Cook & Mineka, 1989), monkeys watched videotapes of model monkeys reacting fearfully to either fear-relevant stimuli (toy snakes or a toy crocodile) or fear-irrelevant stimuli (flowers or a toy rabbit). The observer monkeys developed fears of the fear-relevant stimuli but not the fear-irrelevant stimuli.

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Cognitive-behavior therapy and exposure therapy are commonly used to treat specific phobias. CBT is a short-term, skills-focused therapy that aims to help people diffuse unhelpful emotional responses by helping people consider them differently or change their behavior and is effective in treating specific phobias. Exposure therapy is a particularly effective treatment method, as it consists of exposing a patient to the anxiety-inducing situation in manageable chunks. Medications to aid CBT have not been too promising, with the exception of adjunctive D-clycoserine.

Watch It

Watch this example of a woman dealing with specific phobias and her experience in facing her fears.

You can view the transcript for “Phobias” here (opens in new window).


Specific phobias have a one-year prevalence of 8.7% in the United States with 21.9% of the cases being severe, 30.0% moderate, and 48.1% mild.[1] The usual age of onset is childhood to adolescence. Women are twice as likely to suffer from specific phobias than men.

Watch It

What’s the difference between a specific phobia and panic disorder? This video with Dr. Judith Beck and Dr. Aaron Beck (the founder of cognitive therapy and CBT) describes the distinction between a specific phobia and panic disorder through the description of two patients. The first patient is afraid of flying and experiences a panic attack. The second patient is afraid of flying but also implements a safety behavior, an act designed to reduce anxiety in social situations by reducing the chance of negative outcomes. 

You can view the transcript for “Specific Phobia Versus Panic Disorder in CBT” here (opens in new window).

Key Takeaways: Specific Phobia

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safety behavior: a coping strategy designed to reduce anxiety in social situations by reducing the chance of negative outcomes

specific phobia: an anxiety disorder characterized by excessive, distressing, and persistent fear or anxiety about a specific object or situation

  1. Kessler, PhD, Ronald; Chiu, AM, Wai Tat; Demler, Olga; Walters, Ellen (2005). "Prevalence, Severity and Comorbidity of 12-Month DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication." Archives of General Psychiatry. 62 (6): 617–709. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.62.6.617. PMC 2847357. PMID 15939839