The Difference Between a Fear and a Phobia

When it comes to experiencing a phobia or an intense fear, the stress and anxiety that is caused by these two emotional reactions can be terrifying to the individual, disruptive to everyday life, and damaging to one’s mental health. Although it is very easy to combine both fears and phobias together, they are in fact classified differently, with fear being an emotional response to a perceived threat and phobias being an anxiety disorder that involves an excessive emotional response. In this article, we are going to look at the difference between a fear and a phobia, what their causes are, and what the symptoms of phobias look like.

Understanding Fears and Phobias As Emotional Responses

When we sense danger or are confronted with a situation that appears to be dangerous, we have an initial reaction of fear. This response is built-in as a survival mechanism, commonly called our fight or flight reaction, and is used to help us sense when there is a situation that we should avoid or get away from. Although feeling fear is often a result of a sudden confrontation with danger, it can also be a general uneasiness or worry that builds up over time. Once our flight or fight response kicks in, our sympathetic nervous system pumps us full of adrenaline. Subsequently, our bodies respond by increasing our heart rate, enlarging our muscles, and alerting our mind to be ready for action. When an individual experiences persistent fear over a long period of time that affects how they function from day to day, this is when a fear becomes a phobia.

Unlike a reasonable response to a dangerous situation, a phobia is an intense and unreasonable emotional response to situations, activities, people, and objects, where the fear is so intense that it becomes disruptive. Often the fear that one experiences is so out of proportion to the perceived threat, that the individual will avoid contact with the perceived threat at all costs due to the distress they feel. In a lot of cases, the individual will know that the emotional reaction is unreasonable but will still be overcome with panic and severe anxiety.

What Is The Key Difference Between The Two?

The main difference between experiencing a fear and having a phobia is that fear will be a reaction to an actual danger that subsides once the danger has either passed or been dealt with. Whereas phobias are a physical and mental tension that is felt when there is no danger to trigger the response. When this occurs, the individual is anticipating future peril without there being an indication of present danger. It is common to feel a moderate amount of anxiety when coping with situations that cause stress, such as school exams, but when the fear becomes long-lasting and interferes with everyday life, this becomes a major issue.

What Are The Causes and Symptoms of Phobias?

When it comes to the development of phobias, they are both learned and genetically pre-determined. If a child has parents that are unable to deal with their own anxiety problems, this can cause them to become fearful and worried for their parents. If a coping method is not provided, this can cause a phobia to develop. When a phobia does develop, the individual will learn that by avoiding the fear, they will feel less anxious. Unfortunately, as time goes on avoidance of the situation will become more and more difficult, calling for an increase in avoidance behaviors. Even if the individual does successfully avoid the “future danger” they will end up getting stuck worrying about the possibility of encountering the fear and so emerges a pattern of feeling anxiety, avoiding the fear, and worrying about coming into contact with the fear.

Common symptoms of phobias include stress and anxiety, trembling or shaking, numbness and tingling sensations, shortness of breath or feeling a smothering sensation, chest pain and discomfort, palpitations, sweating, hot and cold flashes, nausea, lightheadedness, feelings of being detached from oneself or feeling like you are dying or going crazy. Treatment is generally done through a type of cognitive behavioral therapy called desensitization exposure or through hypnotherapy for specific phobias.