Fear vs Phobia: When To Seek Professional Support

We all have things that we’re scared of, and for the most part, these fears only arise in specific situations and aren’t debilitating or intrusive to normal, everyday life. However, some people have intense and irrational fears which can be severe and impact their day-to-day routines, and these are known as phobias.

Knowing the difference between fear and phobia is important because if untreated, phobias can become intrusive and consuming, preventing you from doing everyday activities and leading to a near-persistent state of unfounded anxiety.

In this article, we’re going to look at fear vs phobia and what the differences are, as well as some of the treatment options that are available.

What are fears?

Fear is a natural response that helps us survive. Without it, we may find ourselves in dangerous situations that could be harmful or fatal. As a survival instinct, fear plays a leading role in preventing us from getting into potentially critical situations, and helping us get out of precarious scenarios that could lead to harm or distress.

Types of fears

There are two main types of fear: natural and learned.

Natural fears

It’s widely agreed that humans are born with only two natural fears, those being the fear of loud noises (when you hear a loud ‘bang’ you will likely jump), and falling (this is linked with a fear of heights). That being said, there are other things that may trigger a natural fear response, such as fast moving objects that are coming towards you (you would naturally flinch, duck, or swat to protect yourself), or predators (coming face to face with a bear would trigger a fearful response because you know it could hurt you).

Learned fears

On the other hand, there are learned fears. These are fears we pick up by watching other people. A good example of this would be a fear of spiders. You’re not born being scared of spiders; you learn to be afraid of them based on how other people react to them. If you grow up seeing a relative screaming and running away from a spider, you’ll naturally do the same thing and assume that spiders are bad, thus creating a fear. Of course, some spiders can hurt you, and so a fear of these is justified – but a typical house spider can’t hurt you, so a fear of this type is disproportionate.

Essentially, fears keep us safe from things that have the potential to hurt us, whether they’re learned or natural. Fear is not overwhelming and generally presents itself in certain situations or when we’re confronted with what scares us. For example, you likely won’t be thinking about heights and getting anxious about them unless you find yourself at height.

Fear symptoms

When you’re in a situation that causes a fearful response, you might experience the following symptoms:

  • Shaking/trembling
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Butterflies
  • Stomach ache/digestive changes
  • Rapid breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Increased heart rate


General distress and discomfort are symptoms of fear, but these symptoms will usually only arise when you’re face to face with the thing that you’re scared of.

What are phobias?

Phobias are severe, irrational fears that become overwhelming and draining. They can impact your everyday life and lead you to alter your routine so that you can actively avoid coming into contact with the thing you have a phobia of.

Phobias are categorised as anxiety disorders. They go beyond the natural fear response and can cause distress symptoms, even when not confronted with the source of the phobia. Sometimes, just thinking of the subject of the phobia is enough to trigger an anxious response associated with intense fear.

What causes phobias?

There isn’t one universal cause for phobias, but there are a number of ways a phobia can arise depending on the person. For example, a person with a phobia of dogs may have been bitten by a dog at some point. To this end, this would be a normal fear where there’s a distrust of dogs, but this incident could be enough to make them intensely scared of dogs, to the point they might avoid going for a walk early in the morning or in the evening when dog walkers tend to be out.

Phobias, like fears, can be learned from watching how someone else responds to a situation. For example, a phobia of deep water could be learned from seeing a sibling exhibit similar behaviour and avoidance because they had a bad experience in a body of water.

Finally, genetics could also explain some phobias, with research showing that some people are born being prone to anxious tendencies, with phobias and panic disorders being linked to genetic factors.

Types of phobias

There are two types of phobias: specific/simple phobias and complex phobias.

Specific phobias

Specific phobias, also known as simple phobias, relate to one thing or situation. They generally start in childhood or teenage years, and can become less intense as time goes on. There are lots of examples of specific phobias, including:

  • Going to the dentist
  • Getting on an aeroplane
  • Animal phobias, e.g., spiders, rats, or dogs
  • Water (the sea or deep bodies of water)
  • Blood
  • Needles
  • Vomiting

These can be further categorised into animal, environmental, situational, bodily, and even sexual phobias. Generally speaking, they are more intense than fears but less intense than complex phobias.

Complex phobias

Complex phobias tend to arise in adulthood, and they can be more debilitating than simple phobias. They are a manifestation of deep anxieties about situations as opposed to objects. There are two main types of complex phobias: agoraphobia and social phobia.


Agoraphobia is the fear of being in a space or situation when you can’t get out or where escaping the situation might be difficult, especially if you’re alone or help isn’t readily available. This means lots of people with agoraphobia might avoid busy public places like shops/shopping centres, public transport, and high-rise/underground buildings.

Agoraphobia can make you avoid certain situations like going to concerts, going shopping with friends, or going on holiday if public transport is involved. In this sense, avoidance can very much take over your life. When faced with anxiety-inducing situations, people with agoraphobia may experience panic attacks.

Social phobia

Social phobia, also known as social anxiety disorder, is when a person has a long-standing fear of social situations. It is generally diagnosed in adolescence and can get better over time, but for a lot of people, treatment is needed. Social phobia can very much dictate a person’s daily routine and cause near constant distress due to exaggerated worrying over everyday situations.

If you have social phobia, you might worry about:

  • Speaking to someone on the phone
  • Meeting and interacting with strangers
  • Doing something embarrassing (sweating, blushing etc.)
  • Doing something if someone is watching you in case they judge you
  • Being criticised
  • Attending parties and social gatherings
  • Eating in front of people

Most people experience anxiety over social situations at some point, like going to a party where you only know one person, or meeting your partner’s parents, but someone with social anxiety will experience anxiety about most types of social situations before, during, and after the event, leading to distress. Professional medical advice is largely agreed to be the best way to overcome a persistent fear like social phobia.

Phobia symptoms

There are a few different symptoms of phobias, some of which you might experience when confronted with the source of your phobia, and some which you might experience when you think about the phobia (anticipatory anxiety). Symptoms vary from person to person, but some of the most common phobia symptoms include:

  • Stomach ache
  • Nausea
  • Increased heart rate
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath

These symptoms mirror panic attacks and can be incredibly distressing to experience, making treatment for phobias all the more important.

The difference between fears and phobias

The key difference between fears and phobias is that fears are a natural response to certain situations and only arise when you’re confronted by that situation. They are not ongoing and you generally don’t give any thought to them unless the source of your fear is in front of you. Fears don’t overrun your life and cause you to change your daily habits to accommodate them.

Phobias are intense anxieties that are often disproportionate to the cause. For example, feeling nauseous, losing sleep, and experiencing panic attack symptoms at the thought of talking to someone on the phone or meeting with a stranger isn’t proportionate and is an exaggerated response to an otherwise mild scenario.

If you have a fear of something, there are typically things you can do to help ease it. For example, if you have a fear of flying, you might find it helpful to try meditation techniques and monitor your breathing, reduce unhelpful distractions, or even speak to your GP to see if you can get some anti-anxiety medication for the trip.

If you have aerophobia (a phobia of flying), you might look to avoid flying altogether, even if that means missing out on a trip or choosing another method of transportation that is more inconvenient. You might also avoid conversations about flying because even thinking about a plane makes you panic.

Fears can often be managed by yourself, but phobias may require help from a mental health professional.

Getting help for phobias

Most people with phobias know they have them because they may actively avoid things in order to keep their phobia at bay. They also realise that the emotional reaction isn’t necessarily proportionate, and may have been told they have an irrational fear. Whilst avoidance can work day to day depending on the phobia, it won’t help the root cause of the problem and could even make the phobia worse over time.

The first step is to reach out to a medical professional, be it your GP or a private psychologist. Lots of people have phobias and there’s nothing to be embarrassed about, no matter what the phobia is. If your life is being impacted by the distress caused by your phobia, help is available, and it’s important to remember that phobias can be managed and overcome.


Counselling can be an effective treatment option for people with complex phobias. You can talk through your phobia and identify the root cause with a trained mental health professional, and work through coping mechanisms to help you treat and manage your phobia.


Psychotherapy, like counselling, is a type of talking therapy that aims to look at your behaviour and how the way you think and feel can sometimes be influenced by subconscious thoughts.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

CBT is a common talking therapy that can be used to help treat a range of mental health disorders and conditions, including phobias. It involves talking to a therapist about your life and identifying unhelpful thought patterns and behaviours, and how you can go about changing how you think.


There are some medications that can help you if you have anxiety caused by a phobia, including antidepressants and beta blockers.

Exposure therapy

Exposure therapy can be one of the most helpful ways of helping you to manage your phobia. It involves exposing yourself to the thing you’re scared of and then increasing the amount of time you’re around it for. For example, if you have agoraphobia and are afraid to leave your house, you might go outside for a few minutes and then come back in. Over time, you can increase the amount of time you’re outside and the distance you travel from your home.

Another example is if you have arachnophobia (a phobia of spiders), you might look at a spider for a few seconds and gradually increase the amount of time you look at it. You might even hold it. Educating yourself about spiders might also help you to accept that most of them aren’t harmful and can’t hurt you, so there’s not much to be afraid of.

Self-help groups

Lots of people have phobias which means there are lots of support groups out there that can help you. You can meet people with the same phobias as you and talk through your phobias together.

Get help for phobias and anxiety disorders with Psymplicity Healthcare

There are lots of self-help techniques like meditation that can help with anxiety and phobias, but professional help is often the best way for people with phobias to cope with them. At Psymplicity Healthcare, we have a friendly team of psychiatrists who specialise in anxiety disorders. We can help you cope with your phobia using a holistic treatment plan that is tailored directly to your needs. To find out more about how we can help you, please contact us.

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Mavish S

Mavish is a BABCP Accredited CBT and EMDR Therapist and CBT Clinical Lead at Psymplicity. Since beginning undergraduate studies 13 years ago, Mavish has worked in various mental health settings within the charity, NHS and private sector. Mavish’s passion for learning and professional growth has led to a vastness of experience and accelerated growth in her career while delivering one-to-one therapy, group workshops, training and supervision for professionals and senior team management. Mavish is a keen writer and writes many of the articles on our website, as well of our self-help resources.

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