What You Should Know About Physiological Responses

When Your Phobia Triggers a Severe Physiological Response

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A physiological response is an automatic reaction that triggers a physical response to a stimulus. Most of us are familiar with the automatic and instinctive physiological responses we experience every day, but we typically remain unaware of them.  

Yet, many of us are also prone to more severe physiological responses to stimuli like stress that tap into what is colloquially known as the "fight or flight" response.

When placed in a stressful situation, you might begin to sweat and your heart rate may increase. These are types of physiological responses. 

Physiological Responses to Phobias

For people with phobias, coming into contact with the object of their phobia can serve as the stress trigger for different types of physiological responses. A physiological response to an intense and irrational fear can manifest itself in physical ways. These may include:

  • Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Heart palpitations
  • Panic attacks
  • Dizziness

The physiological response may be mild or severe but is generally not dangerous. However, these physical symptoms can mirror those of some diseases, so it is important to consult a physician.

While the physiological responses experienced by a person with a phobia is often a unique reaction to a specific fear, it's important to know if this response is, in fact, caused by a true phobia.

What Is a Phobia?

A phobia can be defined as an intense and irrational fear.

It's important to note that a fear and a phobia are not the same. Your therapist cannot use a lab test to make a diagnosis so she and other mental health professionals consult the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders known as DSM-5.

Diagnosing a Phobia

In order for a phobia to be diagnosed, it must significantly interfere with the sufferer's daily life.

For example, a strong fear of snakes may not be a phobia for a city-dweller who would rarely come in contact with a snake. However, it may represent a severe phobia in a country farmer whose property is home to numerous snakes.

There are many anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder that may cause phobic reactions to certain situations. A mental health professional will make a clear evaluation of an individual's experiences to arrive at a correct diagnosis.

Treatment for Phobias

Therapy will help with physiological responses caused by phobias. The two commonly accepted forms of treatment for phobias are medication and therapy. Many clinicians prefer to try therapy first, adding medications only if needed, although this is not a universal practice.

One of the most accepted forms of therapy for phobias is known as cognitive behavior therapy or CBT. In CBT, the clinician works with the client to confront the feared situation and change the phobic reaction by changing the automatic thoughts that occur.

Exposure therapy is a leading form of CBT that works well in treating phobias. A popular type is known as systematic desensitization during which the person is gradually exposed to the feared object.

They learn to tolerate increased exposure bit by bit.

In addition, prescription medications can help with physiological responses caused by phobias. These include anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications, and beta-blockers, which limit the effects of adrenaline on the body.

Many people find relief through alternative treatments and relaxation techniques. However, these methods should only be attempted under professional supervision. Many phobias continue to worsen over time, so prompt treatment is always recommended.


American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing; 2013.