Many people use the word ‘fear’ and ‘phobia’ interchangeably to denote dislike of something like spiders or heights. However, there is a significant difference between having a fear of something and phobia, which is a mental disorder that significantly impacts daily functioning.
Distinguishing Between Fear and Phobia
How exactly do you discern what is a normal fear and what is a phobia?
The key is assessing the impact of one’s fear on their daily life. For example, an individual with a fear of dogs may feel uncomfortable when they encounter a dog but are able to manage the feelings and go on with their day. However, an individual with a phobia of dogs will have a much more extreme reaction. They may experience a panic attack upon the sight of a dog across the street or even decline visiting a friend’s house if they know a dog will be there. They likely spend a significant amount of time organizing their life around how they can stay clear of dogs and experience anxiety about potentially encountering one.
Think about another common fear: needles. Many people feel uneasy when receiving a shot or having their blood drawn, but if an individual avoids necessary medical appointments and procedures due to panic about needles, it may be indicative of a phobia.
Diagnostic Criteria for Specific Phobia
The DSM-5 defines specific phobia as an anxiety disorder that is characterized by intense fear of a specific object or situation that typically poses little danger or threat. An individual with specific phobia experiences extreme fear and anxiety upon exposure to the feared object or situation, or even just thinking about it in many cases. Although they typically know their fear is irrational, they still feel powerless to control overwhelming feelings of panic.
It is common for an individual with specific phobia to go to extreme lengths in order to avoid their feared object/situation. For this reason, having a severe phobia can be very limiting and can negatively impact an individual’s quality of life and relationships.
Common Types of Phobia
There are five general categories of specific (or simple) phobia, which include:
- Animal type (snakes, spiders, dogs)
- Natural environment type (storms, heights)
- Blood-injection-injury type (seeing blood, receiving injections)
- Situational type (flying, driving, elevators, going to the dentist)
- Other types (choking, vomiting)
An individual may also have a more disabling type of phobia which is referred to as a complex phobia. The two main types of complex phobia are agoraphobia and social phobia (or social anxiety disorder).
Agoraphobia involves extreme fear of being in a place where an individual is unable to escape if they have a panic attack. Some people with agoraphobia are unable to leave their homes due to overwhelming anxiety about the potential of having a panic attack in public.
Social anxiety disorder is centered around the fear of being judged, embarrassed or critiqued by others. For more information about social anxiety disorder and to take a screening test, visit Mind Diagnostics.
Treatment for Phobias
If you are experiencing persistent distress in your daily life due to anxiety or avoidance around a certain object/situation, it is important to seek the support of a mental health professional.
Common treatment for phobias includes a combination of psychotherapy and medication.
Exposure therapy has been found to be highly effective in the treatment of phobias. Avoiding a feared object or situation has been shown to exacerbate feelings of anxiety in the long run. The goal of exposure therapy is to help an individual gradually confront their fears in a safe environment.
Many individuals living with phobias find that as they increase exposure to their fears, their distress decreases over time. They are able to build confidence in their ability to manage feelings of anxiety and discomfort, and live meaningfully even in the presence of fear.