Specific Phobias

When people who study anxiety say 'specific phobia' they mean a type of anxiety problem where the person affected is very (very) frightened of a situation, thing or animal. The key is that the fear the person feels is way over what people normally feel in the same situation. Imagine a person with a phobia of spiders. Spiders can be scary and some actually bite and can hurt us a bit. Coming across a spider will probably scare most people a little bit but they will be able to carry on with what they are doing, ignore the spider or get rid of it themselves without any problems. Imagine now you have a spider phobia. In this case the minute you see a spider you will shout, scream, panic and try to run away as fast as possible. You may even have a full-blown panic attack. Some people are so scared that even pictures or simply talking about spiders is enough to make them panic. This can be a major problem for some people and can stop them from getting on with their lives. Imagine you are not able to go into a friends house for fear of there being a spider there or making sure you don't watch TV programmes just in case they happen to mention spiders.

Other common things people can be scared of are snakes, mice and rats and creepy crawlies like cockroaches. People can also have specific phobias of situations such as speaking in public, heights or flying on an aeroplane. Some people have a fear of needles and some have a fear of other people being sick.

Most adults that have a phobia know that their fear is not justified, but they can't help themselves. The three main symptoms people with phobias have are:

  • Being excessively scared of something or some situation. The fear must be unreasonable and unjustified and it must happen when the person comes across the thing they are scared of (i.e. a picture of a spider, going to the dentist or hearing someone about to be sick).
  • When they come across the thing they are scared of they immediately panic. This is triggered by the situation or thing they fear and not something else. It has to be specific, that's why it's called a specific phobia.
  • The person realises that the fear is excessive or unreasonable. Children might not be aware, but adults should tell you their fear is kind of silly.
  • The person will actively avoid the situation or thing as much as they can and they will be thinking about it, looking out for it and trying to get out of the way at the first sign of trouble. Some people, if they have no choice, will endure it with quite bad anxiety and distress.

Operant Conditioning

perant conditioning is also called instrumental conditioning. It is one of the ways in which people and animals learn. In this particular type of learning the person (or animal) does something and whatever they do makes something happen. The person then learns to associate the action with the results and then change what they do in the future accordingly. This can make the person do whatever it is more frequently or less frequently depending on the results of the action. 

Imagine you have a couple of levers, One is blue and one is red. When you pull the blue lever you get an apple pie. This makes you more likely to pull the blue lever in the future (if you like pie). You learn that blue lever = apple pie. If you pull the red lever Mamma Mia by Abba plays loudly through some very powerful speakers. If you hate Abba then you are not very likely to pull the red lever in the future; however, if you are a dancing queen then you will be pulling that red lever all night long.

nother example is when you learn to do something to stop something bad from happening. This is the key type of operant conditioning that happens in phobias. In this case imagine you are afraid of spiders. You see a spider in your shoe. You freak out and run away. This immediately makes you feel relaxed and safe. You then learn to associate running away from spiders with that nice feeling of calm, making you even more likely to run away in the future

When we treat a phobia we try to undo this type of learning. The only way to do it is to teach yourself not to run away. You have to stay with the spider until you feel calm again. This will teach you that you don't need to run away to keep calm, you can be calm even in the presence of spiders.


A very famous neurologist that is known as the founder of psychoanalysis was a man called Sigmund Freud, he defined anxiety as “something felt,” an emotional state that includes feelings of apprehension, tension, nervousness, and worry accompanied by physiological arousal (your body’s response to feelings of anxiety). Most of the time anxiety is associated with unpleasant experiences such as sweating, heart racing and redness and is in response to something fearful, like an event such as public speaking.

Anxiety also serves an important function in helping us when we feel under threat or in danger. Evolutionists argue that when under threat a fearful or anxious response makes us hyper vigilant and better able to detect threats to our safety, in this sense our feelings are understandable and natural. Anxiety and fear seem to have a safety function when we perceive our safety is under threat but sometimes people experience unbalanced amounts of fear, worry and anxiety in response to everyday events. In this sense the response is blown out of proportion to the level of threat that you face e.g. having to face large crowds and holding the belief that you will collapse and die because of your anxiety.

Anxiety disorders, as a group, are among the most common mental health conditions and frequently cause significant functional impairment in psychological well-being and general quality of life. Many people who live with anxiety describe feeling stuck and rate their quality of life as poor.

Systematic Desensitisation



Medline Plus on Phobias

Excellent phobia resources from Medline Plus by the US National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health


Anxiety UK on Specific Phobias

A charity dedicated to supporting individuals suffering from anxiety disorders. Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder. This is their article on specific phobias and it is aimed at younger people.


NHS Choices on Phobias

A very good and comprehensive overview of what phobias are and how to manage them