The Top 5 Phobias

Do you have an irrational or excessive fear of something? If so, you're not alone. More than 19 million Americans suffer from a phobia of some kind.

What Is a Phobia?

A phobia is defined as an abnormally emotional and physical response to an imagined or irrationally exaggerated fear. According to the American Psychiatric Association, symptoms of a phobia include but are not limited to:

  • Feelings of panic, dread, horror, or terror.
  • An understanding that the fear goes beyond normal boundaries and the actual threat of danger.
  • Uncontrollable and automatic reactions that consume a person's thoughts.
  • Rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, trembling, and an overwhelming desire to flee the situation.
  • Extreme measures taken to avoid the feared object or situation.

The 5 Most Common Fears

According to medical professionals, phobias range from generalized fears of certain situations to irrational worries about specific objects, animals, or places. The following represent some of the most common conditions:

1. Agoraphobia
Agoraphobia is defined as the abnormal fear of being helpless in a situation from which escape may be difficult or embarrassing. Those suffering from agoraphobia--an estimated 5 percent of the U.S. population—may avoid bridges, busy streets, and crowded stores. In extreme cases, patients may become so disabled that they refuse to leave their homes. Two-thirds of those who suffer from agoraphobia are women, and symptoms usually develop between late adolescence and the mid-30s. Most people suffering from agoraphobia develop the disorder after suffering from one or more spontaneous panic attacks. These attacks seem to occur randomly, making it impossible to predict what situation will trigger the next reaction. The unpredictability of the attacks trains a person to anticipate future attacks and avoid any situations that could trigger them.

2. Social Phobia
A person suffering from a social phobia fears being watched or humiliated while doing something in public. The feared activities can be as mundane as shopping at a grocery store or walking the dog. Many people suffer from a generalized social phobia, in which they fear and avoid social and interpersonal interactions of any kind (the most common being public speaking). Social phobias tend to develop soon after puberty and, if left untreated, can last a lifetime.

3. Aerophobia
When people suffer from aerophobia, the abnormal and persistent fear of flying, they experience severe anxiety even though they know that flying isn't risky enough to justify their fear level. Aerophobia is also known as aviatophobia or aviophobia and may be triggered by an event, such as watching a crash on the news or losing a relative in a plane accident. However, oftentimes sufferers can't point to a specific event. In extreme cases, the patient's anxiety about flying may be so extreme that it prevents him or her from air travel completely or causes the person to become physically sick, have panic attacks, or vomit at just the sight of a plane.

4. Acrophobia
Acrophobia, better known as a fear of heights, is a phobia categorized as space and motion discomfort that can cause great distress to sufferers. What's more, it can be hazardous if people have panic attacks or are unable to safety descend from high places. Like many other phobias, acrophobia has often been associated with trauma, but many scientists believe that it may actually be an extension of our human inborn or non-associative fears—an evolved adaptation to prehistoric times when falls posed a great danger. Along these lines, it's interesting to note that fear of heights is an instinct found in many mammals, including domestic pets.

5. Claustrophobia
Claustrophobics, who fear being trapped, may experience symptoms or panic attacks in cars, trains, planes, elevators, MRI machines, and virtually any other confined space. It's interesting to note that people who have panic attacks may, as a result, develop claustrophobia because they're afraid they won't be able to escape a situation if they have an attack. Those suffering from claustrophobia might find it difficult to breathe in closed-in spaces. And as with many other phobias, claustrophobia can develop as a result of a childhood trauma or for no apparent reason.

Other common phobias include arachnophobia (a fear of spiders), emetophobia (a fear of vomit), carcinophobia (an extreme fear of cancer), brontophobia (a fear of lightning and thunder), and necrophobia (a fear of the dead).

Phobias that persist into adulthood are rarely conquered without treatment. If you think you or a loved one may be suffering from a phobia, it's imperative that you seek help. With proper treatment, which may include cognitive behavior therapy and/or medication, the vast majority of phobia patients can overcome their fears and be symptom-free for years, if not for life.