What’s the Difference Between Fear and Phobias? 

posted in News, Mental Health

1Fears and phobias can easily derail a person’s recovery if they don’t know how to handle them. For families who wonder if loved ones are struggling with one or the other, it can be helpful to know the signs to look for when determining what is happening. Persistent fear may continue in spite of unfounded claims it has no grounds when someone has a phobia. They may also have an irrational and unreasonable fear. Learn more about fears and phobias and how to help a loved one navigate this part of their journey in recovery. 

Origins of Fear

The natural state for a human person is to feel afraid when they encounter people or things that cause stress. This may be from feeling they have something to fear in running from prey. The response to fear depends on the situation but can also come from childhood trauma. It manifests usually in the fight, flight, or freeze and is part of a person’s general make-up. Phobias are more unfounded fears that are harder to control and need more work to overcome them. When a person feels this fear early on in life, perhaps from trauma, neglect, or painful experiences, it can manifest itself in phobias. It can come out of a mental health issue but may also be related to anxiety or even a biological, chemical response in the brain to the environment. Whatever the origin and cause, it is important to understand how phobias work in order to best manage and work with them effectively. 

How Phobias Work

Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder. These are different from normal fear. They are listened to in the DSM-V as fear or anxiety that is persistent, excessive, and out of proportion to the danger posed by what the person fears. Phobias pop up when the brain interprets things to be afraid of but they are non-dangerous objects or situations. There is nothing to be afraid of necessarily but the brain and body respond as if there is and can make it hard for people to move forward in recovery. 

Different Types of Phobias

There are different types of phobias, including agoraphobia, social phobia, and others but clinically they are different. Lots depend on the severity of the phobia and how much work it takes the person to function normally. Commonly, the three types of phobias that are most prevalent can result in extreme fear and anxiety. Knowing the different types of phobias can help people find ways to support their loved ones with phobias.

Social Phobias

Social phobia is known as a social anxiety disorder. The criteria for social anxiety disorder and social phobia are based on the irrational fear of social settings. The person is worried about negative judgment by others and has incredible anxiety and fear about social situations where they may be scrutinized, worries about rejection, and almost any social situation including other people. Many people hate being singled out but they may prefer to stay home and not go out to avoid running into circumstances where they have to respond to situations that make them uncomfortable. 


Agoraphobia is a fear of panicking in a public place. The symptoms vary from avoiding certain situations to completely being unable to leave home. Agoraphobia is diagnosed by matching symptoms with criteria. This is listed as an anxiety disorder and not considered a specific phobia. Agoraphobia is listed as an anxiety disorder but is closely related to panic disorder. 

Differences Between Fear and Anxiety

While the difference between fear and phobia is apparent to some, it is not always apparent to family and loved ones. There seems to be a real danger for those with anxiety and this intense fear is unpredictable and unfocused. Anxiety may persist for a long time after the trigger is removed. Fears, phobias, and anxiety go together. Treatment of either requires different work by the therapists and the person getting help. It is not just about avoiding triggers. Some key differences to keep in mind:

  • A phobia can cause discomfort due to avoidant behavior and anxiety reactions to social situations
  • Phobias are an excessive fear or anxiety related to specific situations out of proportion to the actual danger
  • Fear is natural when people feel they face imminent danger

There is also an element of treating the person’s anxiety and fears about the triggers. Sometimes meditation and other things help but it is dependent on how well the person is able to respond to treatment.

The Reality of Life with Fear

Fear is misplaced in a person with anxiety and anxiety disorders. They experience more fear than necessary in circumstances where fear is not normally the biggest emotion (going out in public, driving a car, meeting friends for coffee). For that person, it is life-altering to the point they may stop leaving their home or interacting with people to avoid the stigma and social situations causing the fear response. The key is to find some help for underlying reasons for the phobias and fears. Therapists and counseling are helpful, along with treatment for dual diagnosis. These can help allay the fears, work on the triggers, and offer tools to cope as they heal.

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