Fear is our friend. When something has the potential to harm us, the fear we experience (i.e., the fight-or-flight response) is designed to protect us. It gears up our body to deal with a potential threat. Certainly there are some things, like grizzly bears, that we should be afraid of.
But sometimes we can learn to become afraid of objects or situations that we don’t need to fear or we become afraid to an extent that is much greater than what is called for. The distress associated with the specific object or situation and the need to avoid it can become so intense that it interferes with a person’s life. It’s this interference with everyday life and ability to function normally that turns a fear into a phobia. For instance, a person afraid of being trapped in an elevator may not accept an otherwise great job that requires them to have meetings on the 25th floor of their office building. Someone with a fear of flying may be unable to travel, giving up countless opportunities to take a vacation or see the world.
In these cases, the person may be diagnosed with what is called a specific phobia, which is a common mental disorder characterized by an irrational fear about a specific object or situation that poses little to no threat. There are a number of ways that specific phobias can develop, including having a really bad experience with the feared object or situation (such as fearing dogs after being bitten by one) or watching someone else respond fearfully to an object or situation.
Regardless of how phobias are established, repeated avoiding of the object or situation that causes fear often maintains this fear over time. That’s because the individual with the phobia never has a chance to face their fear and change the way they think about it. This is why therapy that gradually exposes someone to the feared object or situation is so effective. It breaks the pattern of avoidance and allows the person to develop a new way of thinking and responding to the feared object or situation that ultimately leads to a long-term reduction in fear.