What Is Fear of Strangers (Xenophobia)?

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Xenophobia is a persistent, intense fear of strangers. A fear of strangers is a specific phobia, which is a type of anxiety disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). A specific phobia is a marked, ongoing fear of a particular object, environment, activity, or situation.

Though xenophobia can sometimes refer to hostility toward people from other cultures or backgrounds, this article will only discuss the specific phobia related to a fear of strangers. Learn more about xenophobia, including symptoms, causes, treatment options, and more.

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People with xenophobia experience significant, sudden anxiety and distress when they are around strangers. They often go out of their way to avoid seeing, interacting with, or even thinking about strangers. This type of avoidance can negatively affect major aspects of day-to-day life. For example, someone with xenophobia may find it hard to function normally at work or in social situations. 

When people with specific phobias are exposed to the source of their fear, they experience immediate symptoms of anxiety and/or panic, including:

  • Racing heart
  • Feelings of dread
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Sudden urge to urinate
  • Muscle pain
  • Disorientation 
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chills
  • Shakiness
  • Choking sensation
  • Excessive sweating

Xenophobia vs. Social Anxiety Disorder

People with xenophobia have a specific phobia that involves an overwhelming fear of people they don’t know. Meanwhile, people with social anxiety disorder—also known as social phobia—experience anxiety, distress, and/or panic in social situations. Though the disorders share some symptoms in common, people with social anxiety disorder may feel nervous or afraid even around people they know well.


A healthcare provider can diagnose you with xenophobia using the criteria for a specific phobia in the DSM-5. They may ask you about your medical history, family history, personal history, and current symptoms to rule out any other possible causes for your fear. 

Within the DSM-5, you can only meet the criteria for a specific phobia if your symptoms aren’t related to another underlying mental health condition, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Your fear must be irrational – that is, out of proportion to any real danger. It must also have persisted for at least 6 months.


Xenophobia and other specific phobias have no single known underlying cause. Instead, researchers have found that a combination of genetics, differences in brain activity, certain personality traits, and/or environmental factors play a role in the likelihood that someone will develop a specific phobia. 

Other risk factors for xenophobia include:

  • Trauma: Some people develop specific phobias due to traumatic experiences. For example, someone with a fear of strangers may have been attacked in the past by someone they didn’t know. 
  • Learned behavior: Many phobias appear to be passed down in families through the influence of learned behavior, environment, and parenting style. Research suggests that children whose parents have a fear of strangers are more likely to have the same fear in addition to other anxiety symptoms. 
  • Other mental health disorders: It is common for people to have more than one specific phobia. Many people with specific phobias also have comorbid mental health conditions, such as mood disorders, other anxiety disorders, and substance use disorders.

Prevalence of Specific Phobias

Specific phobias are extremely common anxiety disorders. About 12.5% of American adults will meet the diagnostic criteria for a specific phobia in their lifetime. Meanwhile, research suggests that about 12.2% of women and 5.8% of men in the U.S. experienced symptoms of a specific phobia within the past year.


Specific phobias are typically treated with psychotherapy, medication, or both.


Psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), is the main treatment for specific phobias such as a fear of strangers. 

Studies suggest that the most effective form of psychotherapy for specific phobias is exposure therapy. Exposure therapy introduces patients to the sources of their fears—in this case, strangers—in a safe, controlled environment. Over time, the goal of exposure therapy is to help patients get used to confronting their fears and managing (or even preventing) the anxiety symptoms that develop in response.


Though medication isn’t typically the first-line treatment for specific phobias like xenophobia, your healthcare provider may recommend the occasional use of sedatives if your panic attacks become overwhelming. Antidepressants, antipsychotics, or anti-anxiety medications can help to treat comorbid mental health conditions. 

Certain medications, such as D-cycloserine, propranolol, and glucocorticoids, may be administered on a short-term basis to make exposure therapy more effective.


Medical treatment with a qualified mental health professional is the best way to deal with your fear of strangers. However, there are also some coping methods you can use to improve your symptoms, including:

  • Joining a peer support group: In specific phobia peer self-help groups, participants offer support, share information, and give advice. If your fear of strangers makes an in-person support group seem daunting, there are plenty of online options. 
  • Practicing relaxation and mindfulness: From deep breathing exercises to meditation and yoga, there are plenty of ways to help yourself learn to relax—even in stressful situations.
  • Avoiding caffeine: Caffeine and other stimulants can worsen anxiety symptoms. If you have an anxiety disorder, it’s best to limit your caffeine intake as much as possible.
  • Using self-help apps: There are many self-help apps that can help you identify your anxiety triggers, track your symptoms, and find healthy ways to cope and de-stress. Apps and other remote self-care methods may be especially helpful if you are dealing with a fear of strangers.

Seek Help

If you or a loved one is struggling with a specific phobia, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.


Xenophobia is a persistent, marked fear of strangers. The fear of strangers is a specific phobia, which is a type of anxiety disorder. People with xenophobia experience anxiety symptoms, distress, and/or panic attacks when they are around strangers. They may go out of their way to avoid people they don’t know, which can lead to problems at work and in relationships. 

Both genetics and environmental factors, such as a history of trauma, play a role in the development of specific phobias. Specific phobias are typically treated with exposure therapy and/or medication.

A Word From Verywell

Many people experience anxiety symptoms around strangers—and effective treatment is available. If you are wrestling with xenophobia or any other specific phobia, reach out to your healthcare provider to discuss your options.

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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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By Laura Dorwart
Laura Dorwart is a health journalist with particular interests in mental health, pregnancy-related conditions, and disability rights. She has published work in VICE, SELF, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Week, HuffPost, BuzzFeed Reader, Catapult, Pacific Standard, Health.com, Insider, Forbes.com, TalkPoverty, and many other outlets.