Specific Phobias

Many people experience specific phobias: intense, irrational fears of certain things or situations. These can include dogs, closed-in places, heights, escalators, tunnels, highway driving, water, flying, and injuries involving blood, among many others. Phobias aren’t just extreme fear – they are irrational fear. You may be able to ski the world’s tallest mountains with ease, but experience panic going above the 10th floor of an office building. Adults with phobias realize their fears are irrational, but often facing, or even thinking about facing, the feared object or situation brings on a panic attack or severe anxiety.

Specific phobias strike more than 1 in 10 people, they seem to run in families, and are a little more prevalent in women. Phobias usually first appear in adolescence or adulthood. They start suddenly and tend to be more persistent than childhood phobias; only about 20 percent of adult phobias vanish on their own. When children have specific phobias – for example, a fear of animals – those fears often disappear over time, though sometimes they continue into adulthood. No one knows why they hang on in some people and disappear in others.


  • Persistent, unreasonable fear of a specific object situation (e.g., having blood drawn, spiders, air travel, etc.)
  • Exposure to the feared object/situation almost always produces a strong anxiety response, which can take the form of a Panic Attack. In children, this anxiety may be expressed by crying, throwing temper tantrums, or clinging.
  • The individual recognizes that the fear is excessive/unreasonable (this criterion is not required for children).
  • The fear and avoidance of the feared situation interferes significantly with one’s normal routine and/or occupational functioning.

If these symptoms seem relevant to you, we can help. Feel free to contact us by calling our main desk at (617) 353-9610, or by emailing Bonnie Brown, our nurse administrator, at bonnieb@bu.edu. Also, if you qualify for one of our ongoing research studies, you may be eligible to receive free treatment as a part of our current research opportunities.


American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fourth edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health, NIH Publication No. 95-3879 (1995).

Some information courtesy of Mental Health Net (1999)