What is a phobia and how do I overcome one?

Having an irrational phobia can have a negative effect on your life including avoiding certain situations or experiences where you have to face them. Trying to face your phobia can cause you to experience nausea, shortness of breath, a rapid heartbeat and ‘jelly’ legs.

Understanding what a phobia is and what may have caused you to have one will help you on the road to overcoming it.

What is a phobia?

The word phobia comes from the Greek word Phobos, meaning fear. Phobias are irrational fears usually triggered by a particular situation or an object that is usually unlikely to harm you.

Some phobias can be so extreme that they cause the person to panic or become anxious just by thinking or talking about the particular subject. This is because the brain is able to create a reaction to a frightening situation even when you’re not in one.

Here are a few more symptoms you may experience: 

  • Sweating

  • Trembling

  • Hot flushes or chills

  • Tightness in the chest

  • Butterflies sensations in your stomach

  • Headaches or dizziness

  • A need to go to the toilet

You may also have psychological experiences such as:

  • Fear of losing control

  • Fear of fainting

  • Feelings of dread

  • Fear of dying

Causes of phobias

A phobia can develop at any time in your life and can be caused in a number of ways:

  • Experiencing traumatic situations or incidents can cause negative emotions resulting in fear. For example, getting stuck in a confined space may develop in to a fear of enclosed spaces causing claustrophobia.

  • Learning a fear from a family member from an early age can teach you to have the same fear. For instance, if a family member has a fear of spiders (arachnophobia) you may become fearful of them too.

  • Having feelings of anxiety and depression can reduce your ability of coping with certain situations which can then turn into a phobia.

  • Evidence has suggested that some people are born with a tendency to be more anxious than others through their genetics.

Overcoming your phobias:

Talking about your phobia: many people use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to help treat their phobias. CBT is a way of managing your thoughts and behaviours, by breaking them down into smaller parts and recognizing a negative thought pattern.

Exposing yourself to your phobia through exposure therapy: this focuses on the amygdala in your brain which controls your ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. Through exposure therapy you help to train your amygdala that your phobia does not pose a threat. For instance, if you had a fear of dogs (cynophobia), you would look at pictures and videos of dogs, be in the next room to a dog and then eventually be able to be in the same room as a dog.

Prescribed medication from your GP: medication isn’t recommended for a phobia but you can sometimes be prescribed to help the symptoms like anxiety. The medications recommended are antidepressants, tranquillisers and beta-blockers.

Hypnosis to try treat conditions or change habits: hypnotherapy is a way of helping the unconscious mind to improve the mind and body. This can help with overcoming phobias and getting rid of unwanted habits. If you have psychosis or certain types of personality disorders do not use hypnotherapy as this could make your condition worse.

When finding a hypnotherapist in the UK be aware that by law you do not have to have any specific training. If you are interested in trying hypnotherapy try to look for someone who has a healthcare background, is trained in working in your condition and is accredited by the Professional Standards Authority.

Using self-help techniques:  self-help is great for finding techniques that work most effectively on you. Whether it is reading books about your phobia and how to overcome it, attending self-help groups or making lifestyle changes. For instance, getting regular exercise, having a healthy diet, getting a full night’s sleep and reducing caffeine can help reduce symptoms of phobias.

Apps to help you manage your mood:

Big White Wall

The Big White Wall offers 24-hour support from trained professionals to help you cope with stress and anxiety. The app has an online community of people who are also suffering with mental health. You can talk to one another anonymously, share experiences as well as support and advice.

Catch It

The Catch It app helps to manage feelings of anxiety and depression by teaching you how to look at your problems differently. The app allows you to recognize the mood you have experienced and rate how strongly you felt it. Afterwards, you can explain what your thoughts were at that time and then what your thoughts were after reflection.


Cove allows you to create music that captures your mood and express how you feel. The music can reflect emotions like joy, sadness, calm and anger.


SilverCloud is an online course that helps you to manage your stress, anxiety and depression, by working through a series of topics selected by a therapist. The course is eight weeks and is designed to be completed in your own time and at your own pace.