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Fear or Phobia?

How to Tell the Difference

By

Updated February 07, 2009

Fear is a normal and healthy part of life. Fear plays an important role in keeping us from entering harmful situations and helping us decide when to get out of situations that are not necessarily the best. Under normal circumstances, fear can be managed through reason and logic. It does not take over our lives or cause us to become irrational. A phobia, however, twists the normal fear response into something that is difficult or impossible to control.

Normal Response to Fear

It is easy to become afraid of almost anything. Fear is generally, although not always, based on a negative experience with the object in question. For example, if you were attacked by a dog as a child, you may be afraid of dogs today. Sometimes fear is learned from someone else, such as a child who is afraid of spiders because of her mother's reactions.

Whatever the object of fear, you may become distressed or uncomfortable when you confront that object. If you are afraid of flying, for example, you may become jittery or anxious when you board an airplane. You may self-medicate, perhaps by indulging in a preflight drink, but you are able to manage your symptoms and get on with your life. You may prefer to travel by car or train, but will fly when it is necessary or practical.

Phobic Response

If you have a diagnosable phobia of a specific object or situation, your response will be more extreme. Using the fear of flying example, if you are able to board the plane at all, you will sweat, shake, cry or have other serious physiological responses. You will likely be miserable during the entire flight, as every bit of turbulence renews your panic.

If your phobia is more severe, you will simply be unable to board a flight at all. You will go far out of your way to avoid flying; even canceling vacations or business trips if there is no alternate form of transportation. You may be unable to even visit an airport to drop off or pick up a friend. You may even become anxious when planes fly overhead.

Fear vs. Phobia

Besides the severity of your fear, it is important to consider its source. If you have a simple fear, you will not spend much time thinking about that fear. It will only affect you when you are forced to confront it, such as actually boarding a plane.

If you have a phobia, you are likely to develop a fear of fear itself. You may begin to worry that something will happen to trigger your fear. You may start to change your daily routine in an effort to avoid any possible triggers. If you know that you have an upcoming confrontation with the object of your fear, you will likely dwell on it, perhaps obsessively. You may have trouble sleeping or focusing on important tasks, particularly as the day of confrontation draws closer.

Getting Help

Phobias are highly individualized in symptoms and severity and cannot be self-diagnosed. The above are a few guidelines to help you decide whether to seek help, but it is important to realize that your symptoms may vary from those listed here. If you believe that you may have a phobia, it is very important to see a mental health professional right away. He or she will provide an accurate diagnosis and develop a treatment plan that is right for you.

Source:

American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

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