Fear vs. Phobia: What's the Difference

Maybe you’re afraid of spiders. Thunderstorms might freak you out. You may get uncomfortable when you first walk into a party full of strangers. We all get uncomfortable in certain situations. But are your fears just that—fears. When they cross the line and impair the way that you function in life, though, fear becomes phobias.

Fear vs. Phobia

Fear is a normal response to a threatening event. Some fears may be unfounded, but they’re usually related to a negative experience or perception that people associate with the source of the fear. People are supposed to get scared. It’s a survival mechanism.

A phobia develops when the fear escalates. Phobias may spur powerful anxiety or panic. They may be irrational. People with phobias often realize that their response is excessive, but they have no control over it.

Understanding Fears

When you perceive a threat, your brain responds by secreting certain chemicals that stimulate your body in certain ways. Your fight-or-flight response is triggered, which means that blood flow is diverted away from your essential organs and toward your muscles so that you can defend yourself or flee from the dangerous situation.

Recognizing fear is important because it keeps us safe. It helps us evaluate potentially risky situations and gives us the energy and drive to focus on our survival.

When humans were hunter-gatherers, they needed this fear to stay alive. It was an alert system that kept them sharp enough to see the sabertooth tiger and energetic enough to get away.

Today, most humans aren’t walking around fearing tiger attacks. Our threats have changed, but our bodies retain the fear circuitry.

We may feel fear and have that fight-or-flight response when our significant other doesn’t text us back right away, we go to a job interview, or we fly on an airplane. Everyone is afraid of something. Some fears change throughout our lives, while others stay consistent.

For the most part, fears protect us. They tell us when we might be better off walking on a well-lit sidewalk, rather than taking a shortcut through a potentially dangerous dark alley. They help us change our behavior to keep ourselves safe.

Sometimes, fear can take over and develop into anxiety. Those types of fears can be difficult to control and manage. You might want to seek professional treatment if your fears are debilitating.

What Are Phobias?

Phobias are one type of debilitating fear. They actually fall under the umbrella of an anxiety disorder. Phobias are characterized by:

• Persistent fear, worry, or panic about a precise situation or object
• The feeling happens almost immediately every time the source is present
• The feeling exists even when the source of the feeling isn’t present
• A fear response that’s out of proportion to the level of danger
• The phobia disrupts your life, causing avoidance of or extreme discomfort in situations with the phobic object

To qualify as a phobia, the fear and avoidance must last longer than six months and impair your functioning. Sometimes, medications, substances, and other mental illnesses can cause phobias. Phobias are the most common type of anxiety disorder among Americans.

Although people may have phobias of dangerous things, such as poisonous spiders or choking, the fear doesn’t typically match the level of danger. We all put ourselves at risk of choking when we eat. But does that mean that we should drink only smoothies?

Life is full of risks, and life flows more smoothly when we can fulfill our desires in spite of fears. Many people can push past fear. But phobias can prevent you from moving past your paralysis.

Specific phobias are the most common types of phobias. There are countless types of specific phobias, including fear of:

• Loud noises
• Water
• Storms
• Clowns
• Silence
• Situations, such as flying or heights

Social anxiety disorder is also known as social phobia. This type of phobia can be specific or general. For example, you might avoid all social situations, including trips to the mall and traveling, because of social anxiety. However, you may be fine in many situations but fear sitting next to people at the movie theater or going to parties.

A phobia impairs your ability to function. It can make your life miserable because you modify your behavior based on the anxiety. If your phobias cause you to isolate yourself, avoid loved ones or perform poorly at work, you don’t have to live with the discomfort and seclusion.

Treating Phobias

If you have any type of crippling fear, you can work with a therapist in Beverly Hills to relieve your symptoms and live confidently. If your phobia is making it difficult to live your life, therapy can get you back on track.

For example, if a fear of crowds is preventing you from following your dreams as a musician, a therapist for artists can help you get over the phobia so that you can follow your passions. Maybe you want to get over your fear of heights so that you can take that job in a high-rise building. But you might not seek therapy for clown phobias because you can generally avoid those in your daily life… unless, of course, you can’t get those clowns out of your mind.

There are some specific types of treatments for addressing phobias. Exposure therapy is often used as a first course of action. This approach requires you to subject yourself to your phobic object. You do this gradually, using tools to work through the anxiety each time. Then, you increase the exposure, continuing to use calming techniques until you can withstand the situation without fear.

Exposure therapy typically has to be continued regularly if you want it to continue to work. As you continue to keep your panic at bay as you face your fears in a positive way, you become desensitized to the trigger.

If your phobia gives you acute anxiety, you might want to ask your doctor about taking medications such as benzodiazepines, which can calm you quickly. This type of medication helps to prevent and treat panic attacks too.

What seems to have the best effect on phobias is depth psychotherapy. This exploratory therapy allows your therapist to help you dig into your own personal history and to make connections to experiences of your past that may lead to current fears. Often times, making connections and seeing where the root of your phobias lie can help you, not just get through the attacks, but get beyond them completely.

At the Beverly Hills Therapy Group, we get it. You can’t live your best life if you’re drained by fear. We have therapists in Beverly Hills that can give you the resources that you need to manage your phobias and live a fulfilling life. Phobias don’t have to control you.

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