Diagnosing and Treating Phobias in Teens

Phobias are a common type of mental health problem suffered by children, teens, and adults. A teen phobia involves an extreme and irrational fear of a specific object or situation. Teenagers are just as prone to phobias as adults, and many people develop lifelong phobias while growing up.

The good news is, phobias are among the most easily treated mental health problems. The first step in the treatment of a phobia for a teenager is a complete evaluation and diagnosis by a qualified mental health professional and development of an individualized treatment plan.

Definition of a Phobia

Mental health professionals consider phobias to be a type of anxiety disorder. Phobias are diagnosed in approximately 9% of children and teenagers who are evaluated for mental health concerns. Almost 25% of people suffer from some form of anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.

Occasional feelings of mild fear are a normal part of everyone’s life, and a phobia is not the same as this type of fear. People with genuine phobias have:

  • An anxiety triggered by a specific object or circumstance,
  • The anxiety levels are not in proportion to reality,
  • The anxiety continues for six months or more,
  • The anxiety has a significant effect on the person’s daily life.

People with phobias usually realize their fear and anxiety is unwarranted, but they cannot control it. The person may experience anxiety by talking about the subject, hearing others talk about it, or even just by thinking about the feared situation or object, in addition to actual exposure.

Phobias cause a person to make significant changes in their daily routines in order to avoid the phobic object or activity.

Types of Phobias Common in Teenagers

Teenagers can develop any type of complex or simple phobia. In general, psychiatrists and psychologists classify phobias in three different groups:

  1. Specific phobias. Also called simple phobias, these are triggered by specific objects like spiders, snakes, elevators, and water. These types of phobias are easier to treat and manage because the object of fear is easily identifiable and sometimes avoidable.
  2. Social phobias. These are characterized by crippling fear of humiliation or judgment in a social setting, going well beyond average shyness. Agoraphobia is often thought of as a fear of open space, but it also involves fear of enclosed spaces and any situation where a person could not easily leave an environment. Social phobias and agoraphobia are considered complex phobias, and these conditions take more work to resolve and interfere more with a person’s life.
  3. Complex phobias. Often involve two or more interrelated phobias such as claustrophobia, a fear of enclosed spaces, and monophobia, a fear of being alone.  A new type of phobia affecting teenagers and adults is called nomophobia in which a person is pathologically afraid of being without their computer or cell phone.

 Symptoms of Phobia in Teenagers

The symptoms of phobia in teenagers are essentially the same as in younger children and adults. The primary symptom is a panicky feeling of exposure to the phobic object or situation. Physical symptoms also include:

  • Hot flashes
  • Tightness in chest
  • Sweating
  • Rapid heart rate and breathing
  • Shaking
  • Choking sensations
  • Dry mouth
  • Nausea
  • Pins and needles feeling

Causes of Phobias

Most phobias start in childhood and continue into adulthood, if not treated. There are several known causes of phobias.

Stressful and frightening experiences often leave a child or teenager with a lasting phobia. Phobias can also be learned by example from another person. If a child has a parent with a fear of snakes, they may learn this fear and develop a phobia as a result.

Phobias involve the area in the brain called the amygdala, a structure associated with the ‘fight or flight’ response and reactions of fear and aggression.

Some phobias may have a cause in the individual’s brain chemistry or genetic makeup, and some of these types of fears may be rooted in the ancient past of human history when primal dangers were more common.

Treatment for Teen Phobia

While phobias are distressing for teenagers and adults alike, this type of mental health problem is usually easy and relatively fast to treat. Treatment can involve behavioral and cognitive therapy, medications, or a combination of both. One of the most successful types of treatment for phobias is called exposure therapy, or desensitization.

Treatment for phobias in teenagers should start with a comprehensive evaluation and treatment plan designed by a qualified medical professional. Centered Health offers this type of evaluation as well as residential treatment programs for teenagers with severe phobias and other mental health concerns.