What does it mean to have a phobia? Definition explained - words for fear of flying, needles and more

This is how various phobias - including common and lesser known fears - are defined, and how you can conquer them all

Many people have certain things that they are afraid of, but for some their fear is more intense and becomes a phobia which can affect both their physical and mental health. As a result, phobias can have a debilitating effect on sufferers and the way they live their life.

Phobias are, however, very common, so if you have one, or more than one, you are certainly not alone. Below, we have listed some of the most common and also lesser known phobias so you can understand the things that may be affecting you or your loved ones.

The good news is that a psychologist who has spoken to NationalWorld believes that all phobias are “highly treatable” - and has given us her top tips on how everyone can overcome their fears. So, if you recognise any of the phobias listed below then don’t worry, keep reading as there’s expert advice on how you can treat it and not let it rule your life.

What is a phobia?

A phobia is a “very strong irrational fear or hatred of something”, according to the Collins Dictionary. It’s also described as an abnormal intense and irrational fear of a given situation, organism, or object, as stated by Collins.The word itself comes from the Greek word “phobos,” which means “fear” or “horror”.

What are phobia symptoms?

Mental Health charity Mind states that phobias can present a range of physical and psychological symptoms, and people can experience one or more of these. They are:

  • feeling unsteady, dizzy, lightheaded or faint
  • feeling like you are choking
  • a pounding heart, palpitations or accelerated heart rate
  • chest pain or tightness in the chest
  • sweating
  • hot or cold flushes
  • shortness of breath or a smothering sensation
  • nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea
  • numbness or tingling sensations
  • trembling or shaking.
  • a fear of fainting
  • a fear of losing control
  • a fear of dying
  • feeling out of touch with reality, or detached from your body – known as dissociation
  • stress
  • a loss of control
  • being overwhelmed
  • embarrassment
  • anxiety
  • depression

The International Classification of Diseases states that “symptoms of phobias persist for at least several months and are sufficiently severe to result in significant distress or significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”

Why do people have phobias?

Catherine Hallissey, Chartered Psychologist of the Psychological Society of Ireland, says that specific phobias usually develop in childhood but can also develop later in life.

“Many phobias can be linked to a frightening event or stressful situation,” she says. “If someone in the family has a phobia then a child is more likely to develop the same phobia - the phobia may be an inherited tendency or it may also develop by observing the family member’s fear in action. Hearing negative information can also lead to the development of a phobia, for example hearing about venomous spider bites may generalise to a phobia of all spiders.”

Hallissey believes it is possible for people to develop a phobia to “virtually anything”. She adds: “Fears are a natural protective response to threatening situations. However, with phobias, the threat is either non-existent or greatly exaggerated.”

The most common phobias explained - and expert advice on how to overcome themThe most common phobias explained - and expert advice on how to overcome them
The most common phobias explained - and expert advice on how to overcome them

What are some examples of phobias?

People can have a phobia to anything, but there are some that are common. You’ll often hear people talk about having a fear of heights, spiders, or needles, for example. There are also some phobias that may seem to be talked about less but are perhaps more common than you think, such as the fear of holes and the fear of being sick.

Fear of holes: A fear of holes is called trypophobia. The word “trypo” comes from the ancient Greek word “trûpa” which means “hole”, according to Wiktionary. This fear therefore refers to a strong dislike of holes, particularly closely packed holes and so people who have it will feel upset, concerned or even sick when looking at things which have holes in them, such as honeycombs, bubble wrap, or fruit seeds. Trypophobia has not, however, been recognised as an official phobia by experts.

Fear of long words: A fear of long words is called hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia. Ironically, and deliberately, this 36-letter word is one of the longest words in the dictionary.  The phobia can cause people to feel stress and anxiety when they see words which are particularly long, and they may even avoid reading certain material which they expect longer words to be in. The root of the word is the Latin word “sesquipedalis” which means "a foot and a half long", and in addition “hippo”- and “monstro” relate to hippopotamuses and monsters which are both things that are large in size, as stated in etymology blog The Etymology Nerd. Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia has also not been recognised as an official phobia by experts.

Fear of death: A fear of death is known as thanatophobia, or also death anxiety. Some sufferers are worried about their own mortality, while others have concerns about the mortality of loved ones. People who have this fear have excessive worries about death or dying and will actively avoid situations they feel could either be fatal  or involve discussions of mortality. The word has Greek roots in the term “thanatos” which translates in English as "death”.

Fear of needles: A fear of needles, or getting injections, is called trypanophobia. Figures from the British Heart Foundation reveal that up to one in 10 people in the UK have a fear of needles. Having this phobia can make it difficult for sufferers to have vital vaccinations as being near needles is extremely distressing for them. It comes from the Greek term “trypano” meaning puncturing or piercing.

Fear of being sick: A fear of being is known as emetophobia. The national charity Anxiety UK says that the condition varies in terms of how it affects people. Most people will worry excessively about being sick, but in reality they are less likely to be sick than most because they take many steps to avoid being ill. For example, they may avoid going out in public if they are aware there is a stomach bug going round. Sufferers may also worry about being out of control of their own body while being sick, or have specific panic related to the possibility of being sick in public. The word has its origins in the Greek word “emein”, which means "an act or instance of vomiting.

Fear of spiders: One of the most famous phobias thanks to the film of the same name, a fear of spiders is called arachnophobia. It comes from the Greek word “arákhnē” which means spider. The Phobias Guru claims that this fear is one of most common phobias in the world and is also one of the oldest recorded too. It is estimated that roughly one third of the entire world population is arachnophobic.

Fear of heights: A fear of height is known as acrophobia. The House of Wellbeing states that roughly one in 15 people will have a fear of heights at some point in their life. People who have this phobia can experience physical symptoms such as racing heart, shaking or sweating when they are at a height they do not feel comfortable, or even think about being up high. It comes from the Greek word “akros” which means “topmost”, according to the etymology website Etymology Online.

Fear of flying: A fear of flying is called aerophobia. At least one in ten people have this phobia, according to charity Anxiety UK, although some studies suggest it is much more prevalent than that. People who have this phobia have extreme anxiety attached to being on an aeroplane and flying. As a result, they may completely avoid air travel. Concerns often stem from worries of losing control of emotions and embarrassing themselves in front of other passengers, or external elements such as weather conditions or possible plane faults. The word is borrowed from the New Latin word “aëro” meaning “air”.

Fear of public spaces or crowds:  A fear of being in public spaces or crowds of people is called agoraphobia. The word “agora” derives from the ancient Greek term “ageirein”, meaning “to gather together”. The phobia is life-changing for sufferers as this intense fear of being out in the world can lead to them being completely housebound.

Fear of confined spaces: A fear of confined space is known as claustrophobia. Confined spaces which can cause concern and anxiety can include, but are not restricted to, lifts, tunnels, train carriages, toilet cubicles, changing rooms and narrow hallways. It’s estimated by the NHS that around 10% of the UK population are affected by claustrophobia during their lifetime. The word has its origins in the Latin word “claustrum” which means “a shut-in place”.

Fear of clowns: A fear of clowns is called coulrophobia. People who have this fear are likely to struggle to go to places commonly associated with clowns, such as children’s birthday parties, festivals or carnivals. They are also unlikely to be able to watch films or TV shows which include clowns. The word “coulro” is derived from the Greek “kōlobathristḗs” which means "stilt-walker".

Fear of dogs: A fear of dogs is called cynophobia. CPD Online College states that this phobia is a persistent, irrational fear of canines which causes severe anxiety symptoms in the sufferer. This can influence a person’s daily activities as they may, for example, avoid places known to be frequented by dogs such as parks. The word has its origin in the Greek word “kyon”.

Fear of cats: A fear of cats is called gatophobia. It’s not as common as a fear of dogs, according to Very Well Mind, but it can still have a big impact on the lives of those who have it and lead them to make their choices and even avoid some places because of it. The word comes from the Spanish word “gato” which means cat.

Fear of fish: The fear of fish is known as ichthyophobia. It presents itself in numerous ways; people may not like to eat fish or even see fish in an aquarium, for example. Some people are only worried about dead fish, while others are also worried about live fish, and there are those who don’t want to smell, see, hear or touch fish. It comes from the Greek word “ichthus”, meaning "fish".

People can have a phobia to anything, but there are some that are common.People can have a phobia to anything, but there are some that are common.
People can have a phobia to anything, but there are some that are common.

Fear of marriage or commitment: A fear of marriage or commitment is called gamophobia. People who have this fear will struggle to have long lasting relationships, and as a result may rarely fall in love - if at all. They may push people away if they are perceived to be getting too close, and this can cause mental health problems. The word comes from the Greek “gamo” meaning marriage.

Fear of childbirth: A fear of childbirth is called tokophobia. Women who have this could choose not to have children because their phobia is so severe, and may therefore do many things to avoid falling pregnant - possibly even staying celibate. Women who do want a baby but have this fear may struggle with their mental health as their pregnancy progresses and the birth gets closer. The word comes from the Greek “tókos” which translates as “birth”.

Fear of giving a speech: A fear of giving a speech is called glossophobia. Symptoms of glossophobia range from knots in the stomach, sweaty palms, dry mouth, shaky legs and tightness in the throat. In extreme cases, sufferers experience nausea, panic attacks and excessive anxiety, according to the British Council. People who have this phobia will refuse to give any kind of talk because of the negative feelings it evokes. The word comes from the Greek “glōssa” which means “tongue”.

Fear of masks: A fear of masks is known as maskaphobia. It is particularly common in children, but it does also affect adults. For some, the fear is of all masks and could be because, no matter what, a person’s identity is being concealed. For others, they only feel anxious or frightened because of horror-themed masks. This phobia can make the annual celebration of Halloween extremely stressful for sufferers, and they may also avoid other situations where they expect people may be masked such as carnivals or theatrical performances.

Why are some phobias more common than others?

Hallissey states there are many different types of specific phobias, for example animal phobias, environmental phobias, health or medical phobias, situational phobias such as fear of heights or flying, and other phobias such as fear of choking. She adds that this is likely due to the fact that phobias often develop through negative experiences, through exposure to negative information, and through observing family member’s reactions.

“If certain experiences are more common than others this leads to certain phobias being more common than others. For example, more people have phobias about spiders than butterflies. This may be due to the learned experience of seeing parents respond more positively to butterflies than spiders. It may also be due to the exposure to negative stories about venomous spider bites.”

Catherine Hallissey, Chartered Psychologist of the Psychological Society of Ireland.Catherine Hallissey, Chartered Psychologist of the Psychological Society of Ireland.
Catherine Hallissey, Chartered Psychologist of the Psychological Society of Ireland.

What is the best way to conquer a phobia?

Hallissey believes that phobias are “highly-treatable”. She explains: “Exposure therapy is considered the best way to overcome a phobia. Avoidance is the hallmark of anxiety and phobias where short-term avoidance of anxiety-provoking experiences leads to long-term maintenance of the phobia. Exposure therapy involves gradually becoming desensitised to the uncomfortable feeling so you can tolerate it better, leading to less avoidance and reduction of anxiety in the long-term.

“For example, when working to overcome a fear of dogs, you could start by looking at photos of a small dog, working up to photos of bigger dogs, before moving on to watching videos of dogs. The next step could be looking at a dog from a distance, gradually increasing your proximity, eventually working up to petting the dog. This is best done with a skilled therapist who will carefully grade the challenges so that you work just outside your comfort zone each time, gradually building up to greater and greater challenges while monitoring your response and adjusting the level of challenge accordingly. This treatment is often combined with stress-management strategies such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, positive coping statements and physical activity.”