One of the most important steps in diagnosing a phobia is deciding whether the symptoms are better explained by another disorder. Phobias can be traced to specific, concrete fears that adult sufferers recognize as irrational.
The fact that the fear is concrete separates phobias from disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, in which the anxiety is more broad-based. Phobia sufferers are able to pinpoint an exact object or situation that they fear.
Being able to recognize the fear as irrational separates anxiety disorders from the psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. People who suffer from psychotic disorders genuinely believe that the fear is based on a real danger, though the nature of the danger appears illogical to others.
Common CriteriaEach type of phobia has its own unique set of diagnostic criteria. However, there are some overlaps. Diagnostic criteria that are similar to all phobias include:
Life-Limiting: A phobia is not diagnosed unless it significantly impacts the sufferer’s life in some way.
Avoidance: Some people with clinically diagnosable phobias are able to endure the feared situation. However, attempts to avoid the feared situation are an important criterion for diagnosing a phobia.
Anticipatory Anxiety: People with phobias tend to dwell on upcoming events that may feature the feared object or situation.
American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.