A phobia is an irrational fear that is out of proportion to the risk involved. Some phobias, such as of snakes, do not pose much of a problem to someone who lives in a relatively snake-free country and whose local environment is completely snake-free. (Some fears are weather dependent, such as a phobia of storms, wind or of bees and wasps.) Other phobias can dominate, and ruin, people's lives as they have to battle against the fear either daily or on a regular basis.

Phobias can be considered to be general (agoraphobia and social phobia) or specific (birds, heights, spiders). The general phobias are harder to cope with and harder to treat as they pervade your life. Specific phobias can be treated through desensitisation to a particular thing or activity (such as flying) and you do not suffer fear outside these times (as long as the threat of flying is lifted).

But with agoraphobia, when you are expected to leave the house and shop, for example; or with social phobia, when you are expected to attend social functions (and you can feel lonely if you don't go out with friends, or have your job threatened if you cannot perform your expected duties) you can feel fearful for as long as you are in any threatening situation, and then fear the next situation which won't be far off. And once you fear one situation with either agoraphobia or social phobia, you can find more and more situations hard or impossible to cope with and your world gets smaller, unless you get help.

If you are presented with a situation you fear, or you are in one, your fear can mount to the extent that you suffer a panic attack (see below). And once you have had one, the experience is so awful your fear is even greater with the next threat and you are more likely to suffer another and another which will make you fear doing the very things that would help you – to brave the thing you fear, to desensitise you to it.

An old method of dealing with phobia is flooding where the sufferer is made to face their fear and stay in that situation until all fear disappeared. This is difficult to take and is only now practised with some adults.

Most help depends on gradual desensitisation (or graduated exposure), which involves making a list of situations that worry you in order of priority from the least worrying to the most. You then have to slowly work your way down the list gathering confidence as you go. It is a long and painful process and there may be many setbacks, but with support and time, you can get better; if not completely then better than you are now. If your life is being dominated by fear, ask your doctor to refer you to a relevant therapist.