What Is Fear of Strangers?

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A fear of strangers (people who are not known to you) can be severe enough to be diagnosed as a specific phobia.

A specific phobia is an intense and irrational fear of something that presents no real danger. The fear is typically so strong that a person will take significant action to avoid the trigger of the fear, even if they realize the fear is disproportionate to the situation. Phobias can affect people’s lives in different ways, but there is treatment available.

Xenophobia is the fear of and hatred of strangers. This article will not discuss a fear of strangers based on bias. Keep reading for more information about fear of strangers, its treatment, and how to cope.

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Symptoms

With specific phobia, there is an extreme fear of an object, person, or situation that is not usually dangerous or harmful. An individual is aware that their fear has no factual or logical basis, but this doesn’t matter—the fear remains.

If a person has a fear of strangers, they may avoid most social situations. They may limit themselves to going to work, choose employment in which they will not have contact with people they don't know, and only socialize with friends. Or, they may isolate themselves even more completely.

Other symptoms can include:

  • You feel intense and immediate fear and anxiety, including things like chest discomfort, nausea, chills, flushing, or heart palpitations, when faced with the trigger.
  • You purposely and actively avoid the object/situation/person in order to avoid the fear or anxiety.
  • The phobia disrupts daily life and causes significant distress.

Where to Get Help

If you or a loved one is struggling with a phobia such as fear of strangers, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Diagnosis

If you bring your concerns about your fear to your healthcare provider, they may refer you to a mental health provider for assessment.

In order to diagnose specific phobia, a mental health provider will interview you and determine if your symptoms match the criteria from the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Clinical diagnostic criteria for specific phobia involve:

  • The persistent fear is unreasonable or excessive and even occurs in anticipation of an event.
  • Exposure to the feared situation causes an immediate anxiety response like a panic attack.
  • The person knows the fear is excessive.
  • Fearful situations are avoided or handled with significant distress or anxiety.
  • Avoiding the situations significantly interferes with the person's routine; school or work situation; social situations; and relationships.
  • The fear lasts at least six months.
  • The fear cannot be explained by another mental health disorder.

Even if the criteria for specific phobia are not met, this doesn’t mean your fear isn’t significant enough to cause impairment or distress. It’s still important to get treatment and support from a professional.  

Causes

No one knows for sure what causes phobias. It is thought that it’s a mix of components: personality traits, genetics, a history of trauma, and past experiences. Some people might have even grown up watching others in their family deal with the phobia, and thus it became a learned behavior.

Specific phobia is strongly associated with anxiety disorders and mood disorders.

Treatment

Specific phobia is often treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy. Sometimes the two therapies are used together.

CBT recognizes that psychological problems are caused by dysfunctional thinking patterns, along with unhelpful learned behavior. When these thought patterns and cognitive distortions are identified, the thought patterns can be reevaluated, and the behaviors used in conjunction with them can be changed.

Coping skills are taught in CBT and practiced in therapy sessions and outside of therapy. The goal is for the client to be able to apply these tools to their everyday lives.

Exposure therapy is another therapy commonly used for anxiety and phobias. In this kind of therapy, the person is gradually and consistently exposed to their feared trigger until the fear is gradually reduced. Relaxation techniques and breathing exercises may also be utilized.

Other types of therapy that may be used include eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR, using repetitive eye movements to process traumatic thoughts, memories, or feelings) and psychoeducation (learning about and getting support to better cope with the condition).

Coping

You may be overwhelmed because of your fear of strangers. In most places, it takes extreme effort to avoid strangers. But there is treatment available. You can learn to manage your fear.

Working with a mental health professional can help you reframe and change thoughts and behaviors. They can also help you develop coping skills to deal with the anticipation of a trigger. A counselor can help you manage stress or anxiety associated with the fear.

Even without a clinically diagnosed phobia, fear of strangers can still cause stress and impairment.

Coping can include the following:

  • Eat a healthy diet and get enough sleep. This helps you stay physically and mentally healthy.
  • Practice deep breathing and relaxation techniques. These can minimize anxiety.
  • Minimize or avoid use of caffeine and alcohol. These can alter mood and speed up heart rate, which can make anxiety worse.
  • Stay connected to others for social support. Find trusted friends or family members who can provide emotional support.

Seeing a counselor on a consistent basis can help you develop and maintain coping skills to help you manage your fear and minimize its impact in your everyday life.

Summary

Fear of strangers can be a significant fear. Your job, relationships, and social life can all be affected. Even if the fear is not at a level that can be clinically diagnosed as a specific phobia, it can still cause distress.

A mental health professional can assess you and diagnose a specific phobia. Cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy are two types of treatment that may be used.

A Word From Verywell

While sometimes it may seem like your fear of strangers is impossible to overcome, there are effective treatments available. You can learn to manage your fear and live a full life. Talk with your healthcare provider if you are ready to seek help for your fear. They can connect you with local mental health professionals.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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