Scared? Uncomfortable? On edge? Both phobias and fear can make people feel this way. The two are powerful emotions that can hijack our brains and bodies, overriding our common sense and logic. Ask someone what they’re afraid of and they’ll likely begin to rattle off animals, insects, places, or scenarios. 

Though many treat the terms as interchangeable, there are several key differences between phobias and fears. These distinctions occur when fear gets far out of hand and can become a debilitating threat to mental health and overall quality of life.

What Is Fear?

Fear is an instinctive emotion that occurs when one encounters some sort of perceived threat. It’s not a pleasant feeling, but it has its uses. This evolutionary reaction kept our ancestors safe in the face of danger: wild animals, natural disasters, or conflict with other humans. Fear is closely associated with our fight-or-flight response. The pangs, flutters, and confusion associated with feeling afraid are a result of the body shifting gears with an immediate goal of keeping ourselves alive. 

What Causes Fear?

Despite modern-day humans facing few (if any) of the physical dangers our ancestors faced, our brains still have those hard-wired fear responses. What a person ends up being afraid of is largely due to the amygdala, the part of the brain that has to do with memory. 

Someone who has a negative interaction with a dog, perhaps being bitten as a child, may grow up to have an (understandable) fear of dogs. These are known as direct experiences. Perhaps the most obvious source of fear, they’re not the only way fears can be acquired. 

Fear can also be learned through social interaction. Verbal communication or observing others can elicit a neural response that’s identical to that of a direct experience. As such, our environment can play a major impact in what a person perceives to be a threat.

How Fear Affects the Body

When faced with a threat, adrenaline is released which kicks the nervous system into high gear. Pupils dilate. Breathing quickens. The heart beats faster, pumping more blood, more quickly. 

Blood flow is diverted from the gastrointestinal system (which is why you might feel queasy or feel butterflies in your stomach) and sent to the brain and muscles. 

The increased blood flow to the brain improves the speed in which it can process information and react to stimuli (this comes at the cost of front lobe functioning, however, which controls logical thinking and why fear can lead people to do or say irrational things).

Interior muscles get a boost in strength and agility, enabling you to perform feats you normally can’t. Organs and body parts at the exterior of your cardiovascular system (think limbs, fingers, and toes) lose blood flow, which can cause cold, clammy, or flushed skin.

What Is a Phobia?

Phobias are considered a type of anxiety disorder that can range from mild to severe. They are commonly described as irrational fears, not necessarily because the object of the fear itself is insignificant, but because the sense of danger or concern is unrealistic or excessive. Individuals with phobias go to great lengths to avoid the animal, object, or situation of their fear. Exposure to the source of their phobia can cause tremendous distress.

How Common Are Phobias?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 9% of Americans have some sort of phobia—about 19 million. Phobias are one of the most common types of mental illnesses in the country. However, there are three main types of phobias with several specific variations within those groupings, so a phobia is far from a universal experience. 

There are specific or simple phobias (i.e. Spiders, heights, the dark), social phobia is an acute type of anxiety disorder related to interactions with others (i.e. Public speaking, meeting new people, eating in public), and agoraphobia, a fear of situations where one could not easily escape and can include being outside the home or a fear of confined spaces. 

The latter two, social anxiety and agoraphobia, are complex phobias as their triggers are harder to recognize and thus, can be more difficult to avoid or treat.

Phobias vs. Fear

As such, the main difference between fears and phobias is that the latter results in a disproportionately intense reaction. Take, for example, a fear of sharks. The average person has a healthy aversion to the thought of an unexpected shark encounter—they know that a shark is a powerful animal that has the potential to be dangerous but the likelihood of encountering one is rather unlikely. 

A person with a phobia of sharks, however, might completely avoid the beach their entire life. Fear is considered a phobia when the degree of avoidance impairs a person’s quality of life. Fortunately, there are treatments available that can help overcome them. Learn more and find a mental health rehab near you today.