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The Difference Between Fear and Phobia

Last Updated: November 13, 2023

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

When you hear the words fear and phobia, they may sound like the same thing but are in fact, very different. Fear is a rational response to a potentially dangerous situation, such as taking cover during a storm or avoiding the ocean because the water is rough. Phobias are irrational fears of certain situations.

Fears vs. Phobias

Fear is something we all experience at one time or another. Fear is a logical and rational response to potential danger and is common in most people’s lives. Phobias are less common for people to experience and evoke an irrational fear of a situation. Fear will spark an average level of anxiety to a perceived danger, whereas phobias have high levels of irrational anxiety that does not align with the situation. 

What Is the Purpose of Fear?

Fear is a biological response that is meant to help us avoid dangerous situations and stay safe. Fear is not just an emotional response to danger but something that is also felt physically. Fear begins in the brain when a perceived threat occurs. 

The amygdala is the part of the brain where fear is processed. The amygdala will trigger the fear response in the body, so that motor functions needed to run away or stay safe will be ready. Stress hormones are also released by the amygdala in these situations and help us decide what we need to do to stay safe. This process is often called the flight or fight or freeze response.

There is also the tend and befriend response to fear, which applies more directly to how females handle fear and stress. The tend and befriend response refers to how women will take care of and nurture their children during times of fear and stress, and also look to bond with others to build a support system to cope with the situation.

What Are Phobias?

A Phobia is a specific type of anxiety disorder that can be identified by persistent and unrealistic fear. This can relate to fear of a person, object, animal, situation or activity. A phobia can be diagnosed when the fear is persistent, excessive and out of proportion to the problem at hand. 

Phobias occur when the fear receptors in the brain do not function properly and mis-identify things that are not dangerous, as dangerous. Different types of phobias can be categorized into three major types.

Diagnostic Criteria for Different Types of Phobias

Some phobias are very specific, with the fear being only about one thing. A wider net of situations triggers others. Depending on the specifics of the phobia, it can land within one of three types of phobia. 

Specific Phobias

Specific phobias, or simple phobias, are typically related to one thing. These can be a fear of a specific animal, people, environment, situation or object. Specific phobias also seem to be inherited, or run in families.

Social Phobia

Social phobia is sometimes referred to as social anxiety disorder. People with social phobias have fear about being in social situations where they may be embarrassed, judged or humiliated by others. The social phobia may be related to social situations in general or something more specific such as giving speeches or being in crowds. 


Agoraphobia may seem similar to social phobia, but agoraphobia is a fear that relates to being in a public place or situation and not being able to leave or being embarrassed by leaving. They may avoid public places that are crowded and that they can not easily leave, such as public transportation or concerts. 

Difference Between Fear and Anxiety

Fear and anxiety are often used interchangeably but they are two different experiences. Fear, as stated above, is a rational response to a perceived danger, and it is usually temporary or circumstantial. Anxiety occurs in the same way in the brain that fear does, but it happens in a less intense but more constant state. Anxiety keeps the body and mind in a more constant state of stress than what happens when we encounter fear. This can lead to prolonged periods of heightened sense, stress on the body and being on edge.

Treatment Options for Phobias

There are a few different options for treating Phobias. There are a variety of therapies to treat phobias, which include:

  • Exposure Therapy 
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Mindfulness Therapy

Exposure therapy has been found to be the most effective type of therapy for phobias. Medication may also be prescribed when treating phobias. Medications that can be prescribed are:

  • Beta-Blockers
  • SSRIs
  • Antidepressants 

A treatment facility may also be a good option in treating phobias if necessary. The Recovery Village Kansas City offers treatment for various mental health diagnoses, including phobias. If you or a loved one is suffering from a phobia, reach out to the admissions team at The Recovery Village Kansas City today.


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Gadsden Regional Medical Center. “Fear vs Phobia.” 2023. Accessed November 2, 2023. 

University of Western Alabama. “Why We Physically Feel Fear.” Psychology and Counseling News, June 21, 2019. Accessed November 2, 2023. 

Steimer T. “The biology of fear- and anxiety-related behaviors.” Dialogues Clin Neurosci. September 4, 2002. Accessed November 2, 2023. 

Taylor SE, Klein LC, Lewis BP, Gruenewald TL, Gurung RA, Updegraff JA. “Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight.” Psychol Rev, July 2000. Accessed November 2, 2023. 

Garcia R. “Neurobiology of fear and specific phobias.” Learn Mem, Aug 16, 2017. Accessed November 2, 2023. 

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