What is a Phobia? Why Does It Cause So Much Anxiety?

Do you have a phobia? Did you know it’s a type of anxiety disorder?

Having a phobia is more common that people think. Nearly 10% of Americans have phobias. That means nearly 30 million of us are struggling with this particular type of anxiety disorder.

Anxiety Is Normal

Having anxiety about something is normal. Having anxiety occasionally or even daily doesn’t mean you have a mental illness. Feeling stressed is not always indicative of an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety is a reaction to stressful situations.

Tense board meetings, public speaking, health concerns, an abnormally high credit card bill, suspecting your spouse of cheating, problems with your kids—life is full of stressors that can cause anxiety. But sometimes anxiety is not a normal reaction.

  • There is no obvious stressor or cause of your anxiety.
  • Your anxiety is intense and prolonged, even after the source has been resolved. Are you still worried about picking up your kids late, even though when you got there, they were fine?
  • Anxiety causes chronic distressing physical symptoms.
  • You shut down, procrastinate, and avoid normal tasks and responsibilities due to your anxiety.
  • Your anxiety negatively affects your life in a consistent and enduring way.

Anxiety may cause these physical symptoms:

  • Dizziness
  • Upset stomach
  • Sweating
  • Urge to urinate
  • Headache
  • Brain fog
  • Muscle tension
  • Tightness in your chest
  • Trouble breathing
  • Fast heartbeat

A Phobia Is Not Normal Anxiety

Phobia anxiety don't panic

A phobia is an irrational fear of a particular object, animal or situation.

There are three main types of phobias:

  • Simple or specific phobia
  • Social phobia
  • Agoraphobia

Simple or Specific Phobia

Simple phobia is the most common type of phobia. If you are terrified of an object, animal, or situation, this is a simple phobia. Fear of flying, driving, or trains is a simple phobia. Fear of germs, spiders, holes, dogs, snakes, heights, bridges, thunderstorms, or deep water are all simple phobias.

Yes, these things can be dangerous, but most of the time they are not. If seeing or thinking about them causes you panic, you have a phobia. Simple phobias generally appear in childhood.

Our Life Coach, Joelle, has a phobia of ants.

Social Phobia

Social phobia is an irrational fear of being humiliated or embarrassed in front of others. It generally appears when you’re a teen.

Symptoms of social phobia include:

  • Fear of talking to strangers
  • Physical symptoms while interacting with others, such as shaky hands, sweating, a trembling voice, or shivering
  • Avoiding social engagements due to fear of embarrassment
  • Analyzing your “performance” after a social situation
  • Expecting the worst outcome from an upcoming social situation


Agoraphobia is an irrational fear of being trapped without escape. Perhaps the most well-known form of agoraphobia is claustrophobia, or fear of enclosed spaces. Thoughts of crowds, stores, elevators, or public transportation may cause people with agoraphobia to panic.

Agoraphobia may be triggered by suffering a panic attack in one of these spaces. Afterwards, you avoid that space. You’re worried that it may happen again.

People with agoraphobia may:

  • Avoid public spaces
  • Need a friend or family member with them in public spaces
  • Avoid leaving home at all

Treating Your Phobia By Uncovering Your Anxiety

Sometimes people come in with anxiety, and they don’t know why. Or they think they know why, but it’s not the real why. Our minds are masters of disguise. They hide many thoughts, feelings, urges, and memories. We call this the unconscious mind.

We have to be detectives to deal with our unconscious mind.

Our minds hides thing to protect us. Maybe what happened in our past was so horrible that our mind decides we can’t handle it. Maybe our urges seem so socially unacceptable, our mind  buries them. Your mind’s mission is to keep you from feeling pain. You reflexively jerk your hand off a hot surface to avoid physical pain. In the same way, you mind buries something it considers shameful, to keep you from emotional pain.

My job is to help you figure out what your mind is hiding and why. I help you create a safe place. Then we can convince your mind, on all levels, that yes, even if this hurts, it will be worth it. It’s like ripping off a band-aid.

Thinking is not the same as doing.

Sometimes we have anxiety about our fantasies. We may have a fantasy about hurting somebody, maybe even somebody we love. We may feel so guilty about this, we just try to bury it and not look. It seems painful to try to understand where it’s coming from.

If you’re angry or feel neglected by your partner, it’s okay to fantasize about pushing them off a mountain. It doesn’t mean you’re going to commit murder. And it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.

Sometimes a phobia is about symbolism.

Let’s take Joelle’s ant phobia. When I ask her to describe ants, she calls them “little crawly things.”  She has a physical reaction as she says that. She shudders and recoils. 

“Little crawly things” may be code for “invasive.” Maybe at some point that Joelle can’t recall,  someone invaded her space or privacy. It could even be that they invaded her mind, trying to force her to think or do something that she didn’t want to think or do.

She may have a complicated relationship with this person, and the thought of actually getting angry at them seems overwhelming. So instead, she transfers her anger onto ants. These “little crawly” invasive creatures act as a stand-in for whomever she’s really angry with or hurt by.

For Joelle, the treatment may be understanding the root cause of her anger and averse reaction. Then she can set boundaries so that her space is no longer invaded.

You Cannot Overcome a Phobia On Your Own

A phobia is an anxiety disorder, and as such, you cannot overcome it with willpower. It is a mental illness. Mental disorders are as real as any physical illness. Would you feel guilty about having the flu? Would you hesitate to treat cancer?

You may be able overcome a phobia or at least, alleviate many symptoms. But you need professional help to treat your anxiety disorder. If you’re in Virginia, schedule a psychiatric appointment with me here. I also offer video or email coaching.

Treating a phobia can be complicated and time intensive, although that isn’t always the case. But the improvement in your quality of life will make treatment very worthwhile.

Want to learn more about phobias, anxiety, and boundaries?

Phobias, Anger, Guilt, Punishment: How Do These Words Go Together?

How to Parent an Anxious Child?

Setting Boundaries: How to Say No to Your Family, Friends, and Others


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