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What are the symptoms of a phobia

If you have any kind of phobia, having to avoid thinking about or coming into contact with whatever is causing fear and anxiety can affect the choices you make in your daily life. For example, it stands to reason that if you have a phobia of dogs, otherwise known as cynophobia, you may actively avoid visiting areas where there are likely to be dogs, such as parks or open fields.

This distressing cycle of avoidance can even extend to not wanting to see a picture of the phobia, or even involve yourself in a discussion about the subject of your phobia. Depending on how severe your phobia is and how much you have to adjust your daily routine to avoid the subject of you fear, this can lead to severe anxiety and depression as co-existing mental health disorders.

Having a phobia of any kind will involve both psychological and physical symptoms, with panic attacks being particularly common. Panic attacks can occur when coming into contact with your phobia or even when thinking about it, as your brain has actually created an inbuilt reaction to your most feared situation or object even if you are not in a the expected situation which would usually cause worry or panic.

Psychological symptoms of panic associated with phobias

If you have a phobia that is particularly severe, you may experience intense thoughts and emotional difficult which can include the following symptoms:

  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear that you are going to die
  • Overwhelming feeling of dread
  • Fear of fainting
  • Fear of experiencing the uncomfortable anxiety associated with the phobia

Physical symptoms of panic associated with phobias

The physical symptoms of having a phobia can be almost as distressing as the fear of the situation or object itself.  If you find yourself within the situation or in contact with your phobia, symptoms of overwhelming anxiety and panic can occur, which may involve the following:

  • Shortness of breath and problems breathing
  • Hot flushes or feeling cold
  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Pain in the chest area
  • Nausea
  • Feeling as if you are about to faint
  • Dry mouth
  • Confusion

Symptoms of complex phobias

While having a specific or simple phobia can be significantly distressing, complex phobias are perhaps the most difficult to manage. This is primarily due to the fact that they tend to be involved with many aspects of modern life, which means an individual has to face their fears on a regularly basis, and is not as easily avoided without having an adverse effect on your relationships, career and overall quality of life and wellbeing.        

Symptoms you may experience if you have a complex phobia include:


Signs and symptoms vary from person to person, as there are often several different phobias making up an overwhelming fear of being in open or crowded spaces combined with an anxiety of not being able to escape or easily find help if you have a panic attack.

This means that symptoms of intense anxiety and panic can set in to the point where you may fear going shopping or even leaving your house, and can leave you feeling lonely and isolated in the most severe cases.

Triggering situations and psychological symptoms which can cause panic in agoraphobia include:

Situations triggering agoraphobia

  • Spending too much time alone
  • Being in crowded, open or small spaces without a clear exit or help point
  • Environments where people may look at you for an extended amount of time

Psychological symptoms of agoraphobia

  • Fearing death or that a panic attack may cause you to die
  • Fear of losing control in a public place
  • Fear of being embarrassed because of your panic symptoms

Social phobia

Actively avoiding social situations, particularly those where you may have to meet people you don’t know very well. The very idea of being seen in public or at a social event may cause you to feel frightened or anxious. Much of these symptoms stem from being pre-occupied with what others think of you, or that you will embarrass yourself in some way, no matter how unlikely this may be.

If you have severe social phobia, as with agoraphobia, your levels of fear and anxiety can become so high that you feel unable to leave your home.

Triggering situations and psychological symptoms which can cause panic in social phobia include:

Situations triggering social phobia

  • Job interviews
  • Shopping
  • Eating in public
  • Public speaking
  • Talking on the phone
  • Formal meetings

Psychological symptoms of social phobia

  • Excessively worrying for days or weeks before a social event
  • Worried about being embarrassed and people witnessing
  • Using alcohol as a ‘social lubricant’ to mask symptoms of anxiety
  • Takings days off work, college or university due to anxiety
  • Fear of talking during social situations, particularly if around people you are unfamiliar with
  • Fear that people will notice physical signs that you are anxious (blushing, trembling)

Causes of phobias

Phobias don’t have one single cause, and there can be a number of factors during your lifetime which can make you more likely than others to develop a phobia.

Phobias are most often diagnosed during childhood, adolescence or early adulthood, and can often be linked to a particularly stressful situation or traumatic event in early life, which becomes entrenched in your mind as something to be feared intensely.

To determine why a phobia may happen in some people and not others, it helps to analyse the two different categories of phobia, which include specific or simple phobias and complex phobias.

Causes of specific or simple phobias

Specific or simple phobias involve a fear of a specific object or situation, including animal based phobias, phobias related to nature such as heights or water, and phobias of medical procedures such as having injections or seeing blood.   

Negative experiences in childhood are often the root cause of these phobias. As an example, being trapped for an extended period in an enclosed space when you are younger can cause a fear of confined spaces to develop, known as claustrophobia.

If you are living with family members who also have a specific phobia, such as a fear of rodents or spiders, it is also believed that you can learn this behaviour and may develop the same fear yourself. Genetic influences can also be a factor, which include your inherited ability to deal with anxiety inducing situations, and can impact how you cope with your fears in later life.                     

Causes of complex phobias      

The causes of complex phobias such as agoraphobia and social phobia are more unclear, although a combination of genetics, environmental factors and your brain chemistry are believed to play a role.

The abnormal release of adrenalin causing symptoms of panic in situations that present no immediate danger, such as large crowds in agoraphobia or social situations which may cause you severe discomfort in social phobia may have developed from a series of embarrassing or uncomfortable events during childhood.

If you were particular shy or lacking in self-esteem as a child, or have suffered from long-term stress, this can cause symptoms of depression and anxiety which reduces your ability to cope in certain situations.

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