Nearly everyone has some kind of fear. Sometimes these fears are rooted in actual experiences, but that isn’t always the case. So, what’s a phobia? Most commonly, it’s defined as an overwhelming and often debilitating fear of something. Additionally, phobias are commonly broken down into subcategories, including animals, environmental, injury, situational and other. Here are the 20 most common phobias that folks experience.
The 20 Most Common Phobias That Frighten People
One of the most common phobias is Arachnophobia — the fear of spiders. Many people who have this fear may recall a childhood memory involving a spider, or may just be frightened by the appearance of a spider. Even the thought of one crawling on their skin can make them shudder in fear. The sight of a spider can cause a phobic person to scream, run away or have a full-blown panic attack. In the dark ages, spiders were thought to harbor the bubonic plague and were seen as a source of food and water contamination, leading to a historical, widespread fear.
Ophidiophobia is a fear of snakes. Some sufferers can’t pinpoint the exact mechanism of fear: For some, it’s the way a snake moves, but, for others, it’s the fear of being bitten. Some experts believe that the fear of snakes may be an innate — a vestige of some survival mechanism to protect people from poisonous reptiles — though others argue that if this was the case, this phobia wouldn't be as common as it is. Snakes are often portrayed in the media as negative or dangerous beings, which might contribute to a learned component of ophidiophobia. This phobia can cause people to avoid places like zoos or pet stores.
Acrophobia is a fear of heights. This phobia can vary in severity. Some people may avoid going up to high floors in a building, climbing a ladder or going across a bridge. This fear overlaps with other fears, such as a fear of flying. Often, when faced with a height, people can feel dizzy, unsteady, and nauseous. Additionally, they may feel an overwhelming need to get on their hands and knees in order to minimize their height. Acrophobia can strike even when the individual is not very high up, and occurs despite the person knowing they are safe from falling.
Most people know that claustrophobia is the fear of confined spaces. This fear can manifest after a traumatic experience, such as being stuck in an elevator, though this is not always the case. Claustrophobia can also strike when inside a vehicle, like a packed subway car, especially if it’s crowded. Individuals may also feel panicked when faced with spaces such as caves or tunnels, and this phobia may overlap here with the fear of darkness. Claustrophobia can vary in severity and is known to run in families.
This is one phobia that many people struggle to overcome. Glossophobia is the fear of public speaking. This phobia can manifest in childhood, and it's estimated that up to 75 percent of people have this fear to some degree. It can manifest very physically, with an individual being completely incapacitated when faced with speaking in front of a crowd. It may occur only with large crowds, but may be so severe that the person cannot even speak in front of one person. There is an association and overlap between glossophobia and agoraphobia, fear of being in an inescapable situation.
Agoraphobia is a fear of being in a situation that is perceived to be unsafe, where it may be difficult to remove oneself from rapidly. This commonly manifests as fear of crowded spaces, public spaces, or even just being outside of the home environment. Agoraphobia is a type of anxiety disorder and can often be provoked by a traumatic event such as the death of a family member. Agoraphobia can be debilitating, and those who suffer from extreme forms may be unable to leave their house at all.
Trypanophobia is the fear of needles. This is another phobia that runs in families though it is unclear as to whether it is inherited or learned. It is unclear sometimes if the fear is from the sight of a needle or from the actual experience of the skin being punctured. It is particularly common in children and may children outgrow this fear. Trypanophobia may be dangerous because people with this phobia may avoid getting medical or dental treatment to avoid needles. There is an overlap with other phobias such as fear of the dentist or fear of blood.
Pteromerhanophobia is the fear of flying, also known as aviophobia or aerophobia. The underlying cause of this phobia may actually be a fear of enclosed spaces, or a fear of injury or death, or agoraphobia. This fear might manifest suddenly only when an individual first travels by air, and can interfere with career aspirations and family relationships, because traveling is restricted.
Necrophobia is the fear of death or dead things. This is a very common fear, especially after the loss of a loved one. This fear is a sort of defense mechanism of the mind. This can also be a very difficult phobia to overcome because of the inherent uncertainty surrounding death and the large faith component associated with death and dying. This fear may cause other phobias to develop such as fear of flying or fear of heights.
Hemophobia is the fear of blood. While many people feel uncomfortable at the sight of blood, those with a phobia have an irrational fear of the red stuff. Some people experience feelings of dizziness, lightheadedness and occasionally faint at the sight of blood, even when it is something as small as a papercut. The origins of this fear are unclear, but it may be related to a fear of death.
Astraphobia, also known as keraunophobia or brontophobia is the fear of thunder and lightning which can manifest as a fear of a potential storm, or may manifest only when a storm is ongoing. This type of phobia is common in children, and is often outgrown by adulthood. Adults affected by astraphobia may become preoccupied with checking the weather to predict thunderstorms. Individuals may be particularly afraid of the thunder, or the lightning, or both.
Aquaphobia is the fear of water. This most commonly manifests as a fear of open, calm water such as lakes or swimming pools. It may be related to a previous near-drowning experience, and also may be related to a fear of death. Particularly common in those who cannot swim, aquaphobia can make individuals avoid all water sources including the ocean, lakes, rivers and even a full bath.
Dentophobia is a fear of the dentist. Whilst most people don’t particularly enjoy a visit to the dentist, this phobia manifests as feelings of utter panic at the prospect of having to have their yearly checkup. Individuals might avoid the dentist even when they have painful mouth conditions and may end up with poor dentition and even problems with eating due to tooth problems. This phobia is related to trypanophobia, the fear of needles. Some individuals require medication to enable them to relax enough to see a dentist.
Ornithophobia is a fear of birds. This might be due to a fear of the unpredictable and flapping movements of birds, or may be a fear of being injured by a bird. Birds can be dangerous and exhibit predatory behaviours such as swooping which can be frightening. Individuals who are scared of birds will avoid situations where birds may be present, such as eating outdoors. In severe cases, ornithophobia can lead to people not wanting to leave their home.
Traumatophobia is the fear of injury. While it’s logical to avoid situations that are likely to result in injury, this is an irrational fear of being injured, even when in a safe situation or where injury is highly unlikely. Traumatophobia is common among those who have experienced significant injury, and is also common in athletes, in whom injury would be a significant career changer. People with this phobia might avoid activities which have even insignificant risk of injury, and may avoid conflict with others due to the fear of violence and injury.
Cynophobia is the fear of dogs, and is often the result of a traumatic experience. For example, someone bitten by a dog as an infant may have a fear of dogs into adulthood without knowing why. This phobia can cause people to avoid dog-owning friends or relatives and avoid situations such as outdoor spaces where dogs may be present.
Coulrophobia is the fear of clowns. Clowns are often portrayed in the media as bad or evil, such as in the movie "It", where the villain is Pennywise, a killer clown with a creepy and disturbed persona who preys on children. Children might be afraid of clowns from an early age due to their loud and larish mannerisms. Clowns are also thought to trigger an uneasy feeling due to their familiar human body shape, but slightly unusual facial appearance.
This is the phobia of dolls. Dolls were originally created as vessels for the dead, and this seems to be the root of many fears, particularly that the dolls could cause harm to the person with the phobia. In addition, dolls can appear almost human-like, but with an unnatural appearance, triggering an uneasy not-quite-familiar feeling.
This is one of the most common childhood fears, the fear of the darkness. This phobia is often triggered by the brain's perception of what could happen in the dark. This is most often seen in childhood, but can be debilitating in adults as well. Sufferers may sleep with the lights on, and obsessively carry a torch. This might overlap with, or exacerbate, a fear of confined spaces.
This phobia is the fear of germs. This phobia is related to obsessive-compulsive disorder and this phobia can cause similar behaviors such as repeated, obsessive hand washing. People with this phobia may cut themselves off from society for fear of being contaminated by germs.
Most phobias can be treated with a combination of therapy and desensitization. Desensitization is where people are repeatedly exposed to the thing that they fear in an effort to overcome that fear. In some cases, anti-anxiety medications may also be used. Phobias can be debilitating but with the right combination of therapies, recovery is possible.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Samantha Miller MBChB.