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Fears and Phobias – What’s the Difference, and Is This You?

by Andrea M. Darcy

The NHS estimates that 8% of us will have a phobia at some point in our lives. But what is a phobia, exactly? And when it comes to fears and phobias, what is the difference?

What is a fear?

Fear might start in the mind. We don’t like something.

But our experience of fear is largely physical. Our heart starts to pound wildly, our mouth goes dry, and adrenaline courses through us as our ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response triggers.

Sometimes a fear is pretty logic, sometimes not so much. Someone threatens us and our very wellbeing is at stake, that makes sense. But to fear a spider we are a thousand times bigger than, or a rat running away from us? Not so much. 

And modern day life causes all sorts of illogic fears. We are afraid to talk to strangers, to go on a date, to talk in public, to try something new.

But no matter whether our fear makes sense or not, we recognise it for what it is. The moment of fear arises, we experience it, and then it’s over.

Sure, we might tell our friends about it over a drink that night. And we might experience the same fear again the very next day, if it’s around something ongoing like a work presentation.

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But fear is not in charge of our lives. We are in charge of our fear.

What is a phobia?

Phobia is fear gone wild. Your fear becomes unmanageable. You might think about the thing you fear nonstop. And if you are ever faced with your phobia, the thing behind your terror? You have a panic attack, or feel paralysed. 

If a phobia becomes full-blown,  your fear  becomes so big that you are not longer in charge. Your fear is.

Suddenly you are making decisions based around your phobia. Your life is directly and negatively affected. You are going to great lengths to avoid the thing you are afraid of, or feeling unable to cope.

[Is fear running your life? Afraid to go out the house, even? Did you know that you can stay at home and still get help? Book online therapist now and they can help you with your phobia over the internet.] 

Fear vs phobia

So to recap, what generalisations can we make about differences?


can be illogical and we are aware of it it vs. can be very unrealistic, totally out of proportion to the danger, but doesn’t feel that way as the terror feels all too real

momentary and comes and goes vs.  haunting, we’ve suffered more than six months, and can seem to be constantly in our minds

manageable vs. feels out of control

doesn’t affect our personality vs. can make us so anxious and paranoid we seem different

rarely has long term consequences vs. can mean you make decisions that negatively affect your life.

Fear, phobias, and anxiety

Anxiety means we suffer from fear-based thinking. A phobia also sees our thoughts controlled by fear. So often people with a phobia will suffer anxiety.

In fact anxiety and phobias produce the same physical symptoms, like:

  • dizziness and lightheadedness
  • sweating
  • heart palpitations
  • muscle tension
  • headaches
  • stomach issues.

In some situations a phobia can also be seen as an anxiety disorder, particularly if it is a ‘complex phobia’ (see below). 

The different kinds of phobias

fears and phobias

By: Fan D

Phobias tend to be talked about as ‘specific’ or ‘complex’.

Specific phobias 

A specific phobia sees you terrified of one particular thing (it’s also sometimes called having a ‘simple phobia’.)

 These types of phobias tend to come from childhood and can become less overwhelming with age. And you might not have to face your phobia often, so it might not be a huge part of your life.

Specific phobias include:

  • Animals: fear of rats, mice, spiders
  • Situations: being afraid of the dentist, being on an airplane, or in an elevator
  • Environments: fear of germs, fear of heights, fear of being immersed in water
  • Bodily phobias: fear of things to do with your body, like having needles, vomiting, seeing your own blood, childbirth
  • Sexual: afraid of sex, of certain forms of sex, of sex with the lights on
  • Other phobias: of fruit, or clowns, or a certain noise, really it can be anything.

Complex phobias 

Complex phobias develop when we are adults, and they tend to involve daily life and be far more debilitating. The two most known complex phobias are:

How do know if I need help for a phobia?

Worried you have a phobia, but not sure if that means you need help? Ask yourself some good questions, such as:

  • am I aware I’m being irrational but I can’t stop feeling afraid?
  • have I suffered this phobia for six months or longer?
  • is it impacting my everyday life?
  • am I avoiding doing certain things? Not being my usual self?

The good news about fears and phobias

Phobias are actually highly treatable. As in, if you have a specific phobia, you can learn to have no phobia at all, even if you’ve had your phobia since childhood and thought it was going to be lifelong.

Even in the case of a complex phobia like agoraphobia therapy can see you make substantial progress.

You can start by using self-help methods even, like relaxation, mindfulness, and visualisation.

The types of therapy recommended for fears and phobias include:

Ready to overcome your phobia and get your life back? Harley Therapy connects you to London’s top therapists for phobias. Not in London, or even the UK? Our sister site offers registered therapists across the country and globally via affordable online therapy


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Blog Topics: Anxiety & Stress

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