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What Is The Difference Between a Fear and a Phobia?

Fear and phobia are words that people sometimes use interchangeably. There are differences. For example, you can be fearful without having a phobia.

Let’s look at the differences between the two and what distinguishes them.

Fear vs. Phobia – Understanding the Difference

The feeling of fear is the body’s natural response to what it perceives as a threat.

A phobia on the other hand, is a fear that is irrational and usually directed at an object, situation or activity.

A Deeper Look at The Feeling of Fear

It’s normal to experience fear. This emotion is one everyone feels at some point in their life.

For example, you might fear getting a colonoscopy. You do recognize if you don’t get one, you might miss a polyp or early colon cancer.

In this case, fear could keep you from being your healthiest.

Fear occurs when you feel threatened. It isn’t specific to one trigger but is a natural response to many threats. When the source of the fear is removed, you feel calmer.

Fear is designed to help you avoid danger. Fear also allows you to escape situations that could have negative consequences.

The truth is, fear is a normal human emotion. It is triggered by something or someone you perceive as dangerous.

Luckily, fear is usually short-lived. Excessive fear can keep you from doing things important for your health and well-being. A good example is the colonoscopy we mentioned above.

A Deeper Look at Phobias

When a person experiences phobias, they can be associated with panic attacks. This can cause extreme anxiety in the person experiencing it.

Phobias don’t even have to be triggered by the presence of a threat either.

A person might have a persistent and irrational fear of spiders, even when there are no spiders around.

In this case, even the thought of encountering a spider might be a trigger. It can activate the fight-or-flight nervous system and cause a person to sweat or shake.

To make matters worse, if a spider were to be present, a person that has arachnophobia (an intense fear of spiders) could have a full blown psychotic break.

The Primary Difference in Fear Vs. Phobia

The main difference between a fear and a phobia is that the latter can interfere with your daily life. 

A phobia is an irrational fear of something known not to be a real threat.

A great example of this is having a phobia related to heights.

If you have a phobia of heights, you may experience extreme fear and anxiety standing on a balcony a single story off the ground.

Even if the actual risk of falling is very small, and you’re nowhere near the balcony, the anxiety caused could prevent you from going anywhere near it.

The reason for this is phobias often lead to avoidance behaviors. 

With a phobia of heights, you may avoid riding in an airplane or driving over bridges. 

People with phobias may change their daily habits and lifestyle. They do it to avoid the objects and situations they fear. 

When a person experiences phobias, they can be associated with panic attacks. This can cause extreme anxiety in the person experiencing it.

Phobias don’t even have to be triggered by the presence of a threat either.

A person might have a persistent and irrational fear of spiders, even when there are no spiders around.

In this case, even the thought of encountering a spider might be a trigger. It can activate the fight-or-flight nervous system and cause a person to sweat or shake.

To make matters worse, if a spider were to be present, a person that has arachnophobia (an intense fear of spiders) could have a full blown psychotic break.

Let’s examine each of theses signs a little more deeply to give you a better idea of what to look for.

The Primary Difference in Fear Vs. Phobia

Some people are afraid of snakes because they think they could be poisonous. However, most snakes are non venomous and won’t attack unless provoked. 

Nonetheless, a person with a phobia of snakes will avoid them as if they are all poisonous and out to get them.

It’s not uncommon for a person with a phobia to go take extreme measures and precautions to avoid whatever it is causing them distress.

What Causes a Phobia?

There are four generally accepted causes of phobias in people:

Phobias aren’t necessarily dangerous — they’re just irrational fears that cause people to feel uncomfortable around certain objects or situations.

But since they can be disruptive, they may need treatment. This could be applicable, if the feared object or situation is commonly encountered in daily life.

Common Fears vs. Phobias

To better illustrate the difference between a fear versus a phobia, here are some common examples of each.

Fears:

  • Failure
  • Rejection
  • Public Speaking
  • Missing a Deadline
  • Being late

Once the elements that cause these fears have passed, the feeling of far typically dissipates.

Phobias:

  • Arachnophobia – fear of spiders
  • Acrophobia – fear of heights
  • Agoraphobia – fear of being in public places or crowds
  • Claustrophobia – fear of enclosed spaces
  • Trypophobia – fear of clustered holes
  • Ophidiophobia – fear of snakes
  • Aerophobia – fear of flying
  • Hemophobia – fear of blood
  • Thanatophobia – fear of death or dying

Treatment of Fear Vs. Phobia

In most cases, it’s unnecessary to treat a fear.

The reason for this is that they are short lived. They fear is directly related to situations where we actually feel threatened. Once the perceived threat has dissipated, the fear goes away.

Phobias, on the other hand, can disrupt your life and change how you act in daily situations.

How Do You Treat a Phobia?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a common choice for most psychologists, therapists and counselors treating phobias.

It’s considered “problem-focused” therapy. It is a very hands-on method of working through the internal conflicts people are facing.

To alleviate the overwhelming fear and anxiety brought on by phobias, steps need to be taken. The first task is to identify the negative thoughts and beliefs that cause the phobia in the first place.

Once these negative thoughts and beliefs are brought to the surface, then the real work begins. It starts with challenging them with positive and more realistic thoughts.

Unfortunately, treating a phobia can take some time. The more intense the phobia, the longer it will take to break it down.

In some cases, CBT is used in combination with Exposure Therapy.

According to the NHS, “Exposure therapy works by gradually increasing the level of exposure to your fear, which allows you to gain control over your phobia.”

The goal is that as your phobia treatment progresses, you will feel less anxious about the cause of your phobia in the first place.

Do I Need Therapy for My Phobia?

If you are suffering from a phobia, you may have wondered if you should seek the help of a mental health professional.

Only you can answer this for yourself.

For some people, they believe that if they simply avoid the thing that triggers them, they can lead a perfectly happy and productive life.

Some individuals don’t even have to be faced with what is causing their phobia to become paralyzed with fear.

What if you’re so afraid of something you can’t even bring yourself to leave the room, let alone your house. Then, it can be time to seek some help.

If you do decide to seek help for your phobia, just know it’s safe to do so. There is nothing wrong with you, and you’re not alone.

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, somewhere around 19 million people in the United States alone are suffering from a phobia. More about Conditions & Diseases at Hopkins Medicine

For some people it could have been caused by something that happened in early childhood. For others, it may have been triggered later in life.

Phobias impact both men and women, and symptoms can range from moderate to severe.

The counselors at Pathways Counseling Services are fully trained and available to help you with treating your phobia.

Schedule online. It’s easy, fast and secure.

Wrapping Up – Where to Go From Here


To recap, fear is a normal and healthy emotion for humans. It helps you stay safe and can be an essential tool for survival.

A phobia, on the other hand, is characterized by excessive fear or anxiety about something specific. It is objectively considered harmless or non-threatening.

Should you seek treatment? Ask yourself whether your anxiety has become so severe that it interferes with your ability to function normally in everyday life. Does is impact you at work, school, or home. Is it happening around friends or family members; while driving or socializing; etc. 

If so, then you should consider seeking professional help. But again, only you can decide this for yourself.

Pathways Counseling Services therapists are trained in treating phobias and offer you the support to move forward in a healthier and more fulfilling life.

Pathways Counseling Services is the top-rated therapy and counseling service in Scottsdale, Arizona, year after year. We can help your child live a happier and healthier life through effective and supportive mental health care. Book an appointment today, or you can reach us by phone at 480-235-1682