The Differences Between Phobias and Fears

There are many differences between phobias and fears. The former exemplify a psychological disorder, while the latter are natural.
The Differences Between Phobias and Fears
Samuel Antonio Sánchez Amador

Written and verified by el biólogo Samuel Antonio Sánchez Amador.

Last update: 15 February, 2024

We’re all afraid of something. Either by instinct or due to a previous experience, it’s normal for an object, a living being, or a situation to generate a certain rejection, whether it’s justified or not. In any case, it’s necessary to know the differences between phobias and fears, as one is a natural response to a negative stimulus and the other represents a psychological disorder.

Do you have an excessive fear of something and don’t know if it’s classified in the field of phobias? In that case, we recommend that you keep reading, but you’ll also need to seek help from a mental health professional. Only a specialist in the field will be able to diagnose your specific case, so don’t hesitate to ask for advice.

Fears and phobias

Before comparing both terms, we want to define them separately. Fears and phobias are very different conditions, and it’s necessary to treat them as part of different mental planes no matter how closely related they are. Keep reading.

What is fear?

A man sitting on an airplane looking afraid.
Fear must be understood as a basic and unavoidable emotion. Healthy and functional humans (and even certain animals) often experience fear.

The Oxford Dictionary defines fear as “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid.” It can also be conceived as a feeling of mistrust that prompts the person to believe that an event contrary to what they want will occur. It’s a subjective concept, but the physiological response it generates is quantifiable.

The mechanism of fear is exemplified by the fight or flight response, a response that takes place in living beings in the case of the perception of harm, attack, or threat to individual survival. When we notice a danger in the environment, our pituitary gland is activated and releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), while the adrenal gland secretes epinephrine.

These chemical messengers promote the synthesis and release of cortisol, the glucocorticoid that’s associated par excellence with stress responses. This causes an increase in cardiac action, an increase in the respiratory rate, stomach inhibition (which can even stop digestion), dilation of the muscular blood vessels, pupil dilation, acceleration of the coagulant function, and many other changes.

Fear entails the triggering of the fight or flight reaction, which is mediated by the autonomic nervous system and the aforementioned hormonal compounds. The body is telling us something clear: “Direct all your energy to the muscles and your senses because you may have to run or escape from the threat you perceive.”

In the fight and flight reaction, non-essential processes are immediately interrupted and energy is diverted to the muscles and sensory organs.

What is a phobia?

Phobias can be simply defined as “a persistent and excessive fear of an object or a situation.” As indicated by the Clínica Universidad Navarra (CUN), systematic rejection occurs toward a concept that isn’t problematic in and of itself (or is at least less problematic than perceived).

The most common phobias are those directed at certain animals (such as snakes, spiders, and insects), although phobias toward blood, heights, social situations, and open spaces are also common. It should be noted that the event or object that provokes the reaction determines the category in which each phobia is included.

Most phobias start in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood. When the person is exposed to the object or situation that they fear in an irrational way, severe anxiety appears, manifested on a physical and psychological level. It should be noted that phobic conditions aren’t considered those in which fear is caused by another condition (such as obsessive-compulsive disorder).

Phobia is a maladaptive response, that is, the reaction of the person who suffers from it isn’t accompanied by the natural mechanism of response to danger.

What are the differences between phobias and fears?

We’ve already explained both terms briefly, so it’s time to verify the differences between them. Keep in mind that phobias are pathological, so they require psychiatric intervention. Keep reading!

1. Fears are natural, while phobias aren’t

Fear is a normal adaptive response, as living things couldn’t survive without it. It’s conceived as one of the 6 basic emotions that are perceived in all human cultures (and outside of our species), along with joy, sadness, disgust, anger, and surprise. It’s more debatable that other animals can experience certain feelings, but fear is universal.

Complex vertebrates such as dogs, cats, sheep, and pigs (among many others) show clear signs of fear when exposed to a situation that they perceive as dangerous. Prey animals are much more vocal with this emotion, as they’re prepared to show fear and warn the rest of their congeners when they encounter a predator.

Fear is adaptive to some degree. Human beings have the fight and flight response in our genetic imprint because, at the end of the day, we still need to sharpen our senses in extreme situations (a traffic accident, a robbery, or a fire). As studies indicate, in humans, this response is made up of stimulus, cognition, and behavior.

On the other hand, phobias don’t make any sense from a biological or behavioral point of view. The pathological response derived from the emotional state of the patient is usually much worse than the threat itself and isn’t associated with an increase in survival. Phobias are a human-only and non-adaptive disorder, while fear is a universal emotion that’s also experienced by other species.

2. The symptoms are different in each case

Another key difference between fears and phobias is the symptoms presented. We’ll dissect them separately and then come to a series of common conclusions.

Symptoms of fear

Fear is made up of a series of biochemical reactions (fight or flight) and an emotional component, which is highly personalized and unique. The sensations suffered can vary between situations and people, but some of the signs universally experienced in the face of this emotion are the following:

  • Shaking chills
  • Dry mouth.
  • Sickness
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Feeling short of breath
  • Sweating
  • Tremors
  • Stomach ache

All these signs are normal to a certain point, as they indicate that the bodily energies are being diverted to the systems that are needed immediately. In any case, psychologists and psychiatrists can be of help to make the intensity of the emotion more manageable.

Symptoms and signs of a phobia

Phobias are considered a disorder and must be diagnosed as such. From time to time, the American Psychiatric Association (APA in English) reviews its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), in which it gathers the symptoms necessary to detect all internationally recognized disorders.

The fifth edition of this document (published in 2013) includes the following criteria to diagnose a specific phobia:

  1. Excessive and irrational fear: The person feels an excessive discomfort derived from exposure to a stimulus that’s not really dangerous.
  2. Immediate anxiety response: The sensations perceived by the patient appear immediately after exposure to the object of the phobia.
  3. Avoidance response or extreme stress: The patient does everything possible to avoid the negative stimulus (even if this is counterproductive for them). In the case of being unable to escape from the situation, they endure it with extreme and unjustified stress.
  4. Significant impact: The phobia must negatively impact some area of the person’s life(work, school, personal life, and others).
  5. Duration of at least 6 months: This parameter is met in both children and adults.
  6. Must not be caused by another disorder: Several anxiety disorders share symptoms with phobias, especially if we talk about obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

In the previous version of the DSM (the fourth), adults with a phobia had to recognize that their response was disproportionate to the alleged threat. Today, however, recognition isn’t necessary for diagnosis.

It’s also important to emphasize the time interval in which a phobia must appear. Fears are normal and are perceived in different situations, but a phobia has to be in effect for at least 6 months to be considered as such. In addition, its intensity is much greater than that of a typical fight or flight reaction.

One of the clearest differences between phobias and fears is that the former, being pathological, has specific diagnostic criteria.

3. Different types in each case

A woman standing in the middle of a busy sidewalk at night looking very distressed.
Among the various types of phobias, perhaps one of the most representative is social phobia, which causes serious difficulties in relating to others in a normal context.

Another difference between phobias and fears is that both are divided into several types, but phobias require a little more specification. At a general level, 2 types of fear are proposed in the emotional sphere:

  1. Innate fear: Many fears are innate and are part of the genetic makeup of our species. For example, being afraid of heights or certain animals (snakes and spiders) is much more common than being afraid of open spaces. It’s theorized that this innate fear is adaptive, the result of natural and universal selection in humans.
  2. Learned fear: Human beings also learn to fear what has hurt us throughout our lives or that which we’ve been taught hurts us or has hurt another human being. We know that fire burns because we’ve learned it, not because we’ve necessarily been burned by it.

On the other hand, phobias as a concept are divided into 3 categories. Each of them represents an independent psychological disorder:

  1. Specific phobia: This is the excessive fear directed toward a particular object or situation. It can be divided into 4 subtypes: Animal, natural environment, situational, and blood-injection-injury. Exposure to conflict can lead to a panic attack.
  2. Agoraphobia: This is a generalized fear of leaving a safe and circumscribed space, in addition to the fear of possible panic attacks that overexposure generates in the patient. It can be linked to certain specific phobias, but this is non-specific (as you’re afraid of a concept, not something specific).
  3. Social phobia: Excessive fear of any situation that involves interaction with other human beings. The person is afraid of the judgment of others and of all the negative things that may come with being around other people.

Therefore, we can see that there are 2 types of fears and 3 types of phobias. It’s far more important to categorize phobias into different disorders, as the treatment and causality differ greatly between them.

4. Fear is universally experienced

Fear is one of the 6 basic emotions experienced by all human nuclei, regardless of context and culture. We’re all afraid at some point in our existence because we’re alive and we want to preserve ourselves innately. This is a big difference from phobias, as the latter shouldn’t be experienced in an ideal society.

Phobias are disorders that worsen the quality of life of the patient and, therefore, aren’t considered normal. In any case, the aforementioned portals warn us that the prevalence of these diseases is much higher than it may seem: Specific phobias affect 5-10% of the general population in countries like the United States.

Situational-type specific phobias are the most common in adults, while the other 3 subvariants are more common in youth.

The differences between phobia and fear: Pathological vs. normal

The differences between phobias and fears are multiple, but can be summarized in the following point: All humans are afraid at some point in our lives, while phobias (of any kind) are considered pathological and must be diagnosed. The inordinate fear of a specific stimulus can never be justified by human physiology.

If you’ve seen yourself reflected in these lines, don’t worry: Cognitive-behavioral therapy and systematic desensitization are very useful to treat phobias. If you put yourself in the hands of a professional, sooner or later, you’ll see your irrational fear diminish.

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