Phobophobia (Fear of Fear)

Overview

What is phobophobia?

Phobophobia is an extreme fear of being afraid. While this condition may sound redundant, it’s a very real and complex disorder that can take a few forms.

A person with phobophobia may be scared of the physical sensations that come with fear, such as shortness of breath, sweaty palms or heart palpitations. They might feel that these symptoms threaten their life or have the potential to cause permanent damage.

Or they may have a fear of developing a specific phobia, such as claustrophobia (fear of crowded, confined spaces) or trypanophobia (fear of needles). The anxiety of anticipating a potential phobia actually becomes a phobia itself. Many experts refer to this as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Phobophobia, like other phobias, can affect every aspect of a person’s life. Intense feelings of dread, anxiety and panic can make it difficult to function at work, school or in social situations.

What is a phobia?

A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder that causes overwhelming fear of an object, event or situation. To others, the fear may seem irrational or silly, but the person with the phobia feels genuinely threatened and afraid. There are hundreds of specific phobic disorders.

How common is phobophobia?

It’s hard knowing exactly how many people have a specific phobia, like phobophobia, but it’s rare. We do know that about 1 in 10 American adults and 1 in 5 teenagers will deal with a specific phobia disorder at some point in their lives, though. These disorders are about twice as common in women as they are in men.

Symptoms and Causes

What causes phobophobia?

Phobophobia may have several causes, including:

  • Family history: Research suggests that phobias may have a genetic component. This means you inherit an abnormal gene (or multiple genes) from your parents. These genes increase your risk of developing a phobia, anxiety disorder or other mental health disorder.
  • Other phobias: Many people with phobophobia may already have one or more phobias. Anxiety about their fear (not necessarily the feared object) prevents them from getting effective treatment. So, if someone has severe ophidiophobia (fear of snakes), they’re very afraid of actual snakes. A person with phobophobia may even be more scared of the feelings of fear that they get around snakes than of the snakes themselves.
  • Trauma: If you witnessed someone having a panic attack or experiencing severe symptoms of fear, you may be scared that the same could happen to you. Or perhaps you had a terrifying experience in the past and remember the trauma and physical symptoms of the fear itself more than the thing or situation that frightened you.

What are the symptoms of phobophobia?

People with phobophobia tend to avoid any situation where they think they might become fearful. This might mean avoiding normal “scary situations” such as horror movies, roller coasters or skydiving. But it can also mean staying away from anxiety in any form, such as refusing to go to a job interview.

Avoidance strategies can also stem from other phobias. For instance, if a person has aerophobia (fear of flying), they may be so scared to experience the symptoms associated with this phobia that they start avoiding other forms of travel such as cars, trains and buses.

A person with phobophobia may have symptoms of a panic attack if they see, think or talk about fear, like:

Diagnosis and Tests

How is phobophobia diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider may diagnose you with phobophobia if you:

  • Avoid any situation where you might get scared.
  • Find it difficult to function in your daily life due to your fear.
  • Have symptoms of phobophobia for six months or longer.

Many people with phobophobia have other phobias, so this can make it a difficult condition to diagnose. Your healthcare provider will try to identify each phobia separately to build the most effective treatment plan. People with phobophobia may also have other mental health disorders, such as:

Management and Treatment

How is phobophobia managed or treated?

Treatment for phobophobia may include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): During CBT, which is a form of psychotherapy (talk therapy), you learn to change negative behavior and thinking about the thing you fear. If you have phobophobia, your therapist may teach you to identify specific things that trigger your fear. Then, you learn techniques for managing your reaction, such as deep breathing or meditation.
  • Exposure therapy: Your healthcare provider may recommend exposure therapy along with CBT. You gradually encounter the things that trigger your fear. You may be asked to recreate the symptoms of fear or panic in a controlled environment. Over time, you become desensitized to those fears and your symptoms diminish.
  • Medication: Medication isn’t very effective for treating phobias, but you may need it to manage co-existing mental health disorders such as anxiety, panic disorder or PTSD. If medication helps reduce the frequency and severity of anxiety or panic attacks, it may also diminish phobophobia.

Prevention

Is there a way to prevent phobophobia?

It’s difficult to prevent phobias, but you can take steps to reduce stress and anxiety in your life:

  • Avoid caffeine, drugs, alcohol or other substances that make anxiety worse.
  • Build a strong support system of friends and family members.
  • Eat a balanced diet and stay active.
  • Prioritize hobbies or activities that bring you joy and fulfillment.
  • Reach out to your healthcare provider if your fear becomes unmanageable.

Outlook / Prognosis

What’s the prognosis (outlook) for people with phobophobia?

CBT and exposure therapy help most people manage specific phobic disorders. Medications may be helpful while you work on other therapies.

Living With

When should I call the doctor?

Contact your healthcare provider if you experience:

  • Panic attacks.
  • Persistent anxiety that interferes with your daily life or sleeping.
  • Signs of depression or substance use problems.

What questions should I ask my doctor?

You may want to ask your healthcare provider:

  • How can I overcome phobophobia?
  • How long will I need treatment?
  • What treatments are available?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Phobophobia is a fear of being afraid. You might be scared of the physical symptoms that come with fear, or feel worried that you could develop a phobia. Many people with phobophobia already have other phobias or mental health disorders. If you think you may have a specific phobia, talk to your healthcare provider. They can guide you to the right treatment, which may include psychotherapy or medication.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/15/2022.

References

  • Merck Manual (Consumer Version). Specific Phobic Disorders. (https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/mental-health-disorders/anxiety-and-stress-related-disorders/specific-phobic-disorders) Accessed 3/15/2022.
  • National Health Services (NHS). Phobias. (https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/phobias/) Accessed 3/15/2022.
  • Samra CK, Abdijadid S. Specific Phobia. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499923/) [Updated 2021 May 15]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Accessed 3/15/2022.

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