What Is Ornithophobia?

Sea gulls in flight

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What Is Ornithophobia?

Ornithophobia is the fear of birds, and it can take many forms. Some people fear only birds of prey, while others are afraid of household pets like parakeets.

A central feature of any phobia includes that a person is persistently afraid of the object or situation, even if it is not an immediate threat.

Symptoms

Like many specific phobias, the symptoms of ornithophobia vary according to its severity. You might fear only large birds or only wild birds. You might be afraid of specimens that have undergone taxidermy, such as those in natural history museums. You may fear all representations of birds, including photos.

When forced to confront a bird, you might shake, cry, freeze in place, run away, or attempt to hide. In addition, you will likely experience common signs of a phobia which include:

  • A feeling that you are in danger
  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Fear of losing control

You might also experience anticipatory anxiety in the days before a likely confrontation with birds. While you don't need to have panic disorder in order to have a specific phobia, you may find that the feared object or situation could trigger a panic attack.

The symptoms of panic attacks include extreme fear, chest-tightening, chills, dizziness, nausea, and more. Panic attacks usually subside on their own, but if you find yourself experiencing any of these symptoms and are concerned, don't hesitate to reach out to a health care professional who will be able to address your situation.

Diagnosis

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has criteria used to diagnose specific phobias like ornithophobia. These are:

  • The fear is out of proportion to any real danger
  • It causes significant stress and disruption to the person's life
  • It has lasted at least six months

The DSM also notes that individuals with an animal phobia tend to experience panic-related symptoms upon exposure to the animal, or even when they anticipate that they could be exposed to the animal.

Though a person could have both panic disorder and ornithophobia, you can also be diagnosed with ornithophobia without having panic disorder.

Causes

Like most animal phobias, the most common cause of ornithophobia is a negative encounter with the feared animal. Many birds can be somewhat aggressive in hunting for food, and it's not uncommon for people to have unpleasant run-ins with pigeons or seagulls, for instance.

Experts find that you don't have to experience the negative encounter directly. If your parents were afraid of birds, for example, this could be enough to trigger a phobia as well through a learned response.

If phobias run in your family, it's more likely that you will develop one. Studies have found that phobias and other mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and panic disorder have genetic influences.

Studies show that the fear of death can significantly contribute to psychological conditions. If you have an underlying fear of death, it could be a contributing factor to your ornithophobia.

Impact of Ornithophobia

Birds are present throughout populated areas of the world, making it hard to go through an entire day without a single encounter. Therefore, it is not uncommon for those with ornithophobia to gradually restrict their activities. For example, you may avoid outdoor activities. You may even become agoraphobic, or afraid to leave your house for fear of confronting a bird.

Treatment

Ornithophobia typically responds well to a combination of therapy and medication, which is often the treatment that is effective for other types of phobias.

Psychotherapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques may help with your ornithophobia. A trained therapist can help you confront your fear, replacing your negative thoughts with more positive self-talk. They may also teach you relaxation techniques to use when your anxiety flares.

Systematic desensitization, in which you are gradually exposed to birds while practicing your new relaxation skills, can also be helpful.

This is a similar method to exposure therapy. Hypnotherapy may be a useful form of therapy as well. This is when a therapist communicates suggestions to your subconscious mind that can help you to overcome certain feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.

Medication

If your phobia is severe, your healthcare provider may suggest medications in conjunction with therapy. The goal is to reduce your fear to a manageable level so that you can begin to work through it and regain control of your life.

Common medications given for phobias like ornithophobia include antidepressants, beta blockers, and in some cases benzodiazepines (like Xanax). Clomipramine (Anafranil) is a type of antidepressant that is often used for phobias.

There are potential side effects of this medication, such as dry mouth, dizziness, and tremors. Be sure to consult with your health care provider about these or any other effects you might notice.

In addition, benzodiazepines do have potential for addiction. They should only be taken for a short amount of time under close supervision from your health care provider.

Coping

Coping with a phobia isn't easy, but there are actionable steps you can take to help ease your anxiety and begin your path to recovery. For instance, meditation has been found to decrease worrying and improve your state of mind.

Studies have found that breathing exercises are also effective for managing stress. This can have a positive effect on phobia-related anxiety and stress.

In addition, phobias can sometimes result in a person experiencing low self-esteem and related anxiety and depression. Speaking with a health care professional, as well as getting adequate rest, eating a nutritious diet, and incorporating exercise into your routine are all great steps as you monitor your symptoms.

If you or a loved one are experiencing ornithophobia, it's helpful to seek support for these related symptoms. Showing someone with a phobia that they are supported can be a great first step, so they know they aren't alone and they have resources around them to help.

A Word From Verywell

Living with ornithophobia can feel overwhelming, but remember you aren't alone. If you are experiencing symptoms that keep you from fulfilling your everyday needs—such as eating, sleeping, or working—contact a mental health professional who can help you get started on your recovery journey.

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Additional Reading
  • American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Ed). Washington DC; 2013.​​