Specific (Simple) Phobia

Full description of Specific Phobia, Simple Phobia. Definition, signs, symptoms, and causes of Specific Phobia.

Full description of Specific Phobia. Definition, signs, symptoms, and causes of Specific Phobia.

Description of Specific Phobia (Simple Phobia)

Specific Phobia is characterized by the excessive fear of an object or a situation, exposure to which causes an anxious response, such as a Panic Attack. Adults with phobias recognize that their fear is excessive and unreasonable, but they are unable to control it. The feared object or situation is usually avoided or anticipated with dread.

Specific Phobia is diagnosed when an individual's fear interferes with their daily routine, employment (e.g., missing out on a promotion because of a fear of flying), social life (e.g., inability to go to crowded places), or if having the phobia is significantly distressful. The level of fear felt by the sufferer varies and can depend on the proximity of the feared object or chances of escape from the feared situation. If a fear is reasonable it cannot be classed as a phobia.

Specific Phobia may have its onset in childhood, and is often brought on by a traumatic event; being bitten by a dog, for example, may bring about a fear of dogs. Phobias that begin in childhood may disappear as the individual grows older. Fear of certain types of animals is the most common Specific Phobia. The disorder can be comorbid with Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia.

Specific phobias are the most common, but usually the least troubling, anxiety disorder. About 15% of Americans suffer from a specific phobia during a given year. According to the Merck Manual, at least 5% of people are to some degree phobic about blood, injections, or injury. These people can actually faint because of a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure, which does not happen with other phobias and anxiety disorders. Many people with other phobias and anxiety disorders hyperventilate. Hyperventilating can cause them to feel as though they might faint, although they virtually never faint. There are over 350 different types of specific phobias.

Diagnostic Criteria for Specific Phobia (Simple Phobia)

A. Marked and persistent fear that is excessive or unreasonable, cued by the presence or anticipation of a specific object or situation (e.g., flying, heights, animals, receiving an injection, seeing blood).

B. Exposure to the phobic stimulus almost invariably provokes an immediate anxiety response, which may take the form of a situationally bound or situationally predisposed Panic Attack.
Note: In children, the anxiety may be expressed by crying, tantrums, freezing, or clinging.

C. The person recognizes that the fear is excessive or unreasonable. Note: In children, this feature may be absent.

D. The phobic situation(s) is avoided or else is endured with intense anxiety or distress.

E. The avoidance, anxious anticipation, or distress in the feared situation(s) interferes significantly with the person's normal routine, occupational (or academic) functioning, or social activities or relationships, or there is marked distress about having the phobia.

F. In individuals under age 18 years, the duration is at least 6 months.

G. The anxiety, Panic Attacks, or phobic avoidance associated with the specific object or situation are not better accounted for by another mental disorder, such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (e.g., fear of dirt in someone with an obsession about contamination), Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (e.g., avoidance of stimuli associated with a severe stressor), Separation Anxiety Disorder (e.g., avoidance of school), Social Phobia (e.g., avoidance of social situations because of fear of embarrassment), Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia, or Agoraphobia Without History of Panic Disorder.

Specify type:

  • Animal Type
  • Natural Environment Type (e.g., heights, storms, water)
  • Blood-Injection-Injury Type
  • Situational Type (e.g., airplanes, elevators, enclosed places)
  • Other Type (e.g., phobic avoidance of situations that may lead to choking, vomiting, or contracting an illness; in children, avoidance of loud sounds or costumed characters)

Causes of Specific Phobia (Simple Phobia)

Development of specific phobia is probably the result of a combination of factors; primarily brain chemistry and environmental and social situations. However, genetics may also play a role.

Besides a familial history of anxiety disorders, it may by also true that human beings are biologically prone to acquire fear of certain animals or situations, such as rats, poisonous animals, animals with disgusting appearance, such as frogs, slugs or cockroaches, etc. Fear of certain situations or things can also be the result of learned experiences from child or adulthood.

Traumatic events often trigger the development of specific phobias. Negative social experiences can also play a role.

For comprehensive information on specific (simple) phobia and other forms of anxiety, visit the Anxiety-Panic Community.

Sources: 1. American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association. 2. Merck Manual, Home Edition for Patients and Caregivers, last revised 2006. 3. Hall, Lynne L. Fighting Phobias, The Things That Go Bump in the Mind.

APA Reference
Writer, H. (2009, January 3). Specific (Simple) Phobia, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, October 19 from

Last Updated: July 5, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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