Feature Archive

Confronting Your Phobias

Being afraid is natural, but irrational fear of harmless things is not. With therapy, almost anyone can get over their phobias.

By Carol Sorgen
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

Refuse to fly? Can't drive across a bridge? Will do anything to avoid speaking in public? You, like millions of others, may be suffering from a phobia. The bad news is -- as you know all too well --that phobias are uncomfortable and can disrupt your life. But the good news is that phobias are not dangerous, and what's more important, they can be cured.

In "doctor-speak," a phobia is an irrational or excessive fear of a situation or a particular object, says Michael Kahan, MD, a psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of phobias at Hillside Hospital, part of North Shore-LIJ Health System in New York.

Being afraid of something is not the same thing as a phobia, says Kahan. "Many people are afraid of snakes, for example, but it's not a phobia if it doesn't interfere with your life or sense of well-being," he explains.

Phobias can be classified by category, says Kahan: specific and social. Specific phobias are fears of such things as animals -- snakes, mice, dogs, cats, insects are particularly common -- heights, bridges, and elevators. Between 6% and 12% of people in the U.S. suffer from a specific phobia.

Social phobias -- which afflict more than 13% of the population -- have to do with the fear of such situations as public speaking, stage fright, and meeting new people.

Social phobias are frequently overlooked by healthcare professionals, says clinical psychologist Barbara Markway, PhD, author of Painfully Shy: How To Overcome Social Anxiety and Reclaim Your Life. So it may be up to you to determine if that could be causing your discomfort. Markway suggests asking yourself the following questions:

  • Do you literally become "sick with fear" at the thought of being in certain social or performance situations (such as speaking in public, participating in class, attending meetings, meeting strangers, going to parties, dating)?
  • When did you first begin feeling this way?
  • How much does it affect your everyday life?
  • Do you have any other conditions, such as depression, that frequently go hand-in-hand with phobias and anxiety?

If it looks like social anxiety is a chronic problem that is limiting your activities, you should seek treatment, says Markway, as she herself did when she first realized that she suffered from social anxiety.

In the meantime, says Markway, there are a few tips you can follow on your own: