Fear vs. Phobia: When Our Warning Center Goes Haywire

Anxiety usually involves some form of fear. Anxious thoughts often involve worry: fear of what might happen, worst-case scenarios, and disastrous consequences of something that has already happen or might possibly happen in the future. Anxiety and fear aren't exactly the same thing, however.

Anxiety is rooted in the past or future, whereas true fear is a physiological, cognitive, and emotional reaction to something that is happening right now (such as a snake slithering across your path when you're outside). Fear is external and concrete. Fear, though, can become internalized and general, and when it does, it becomes an anxiety disorder known as a phobia. Here's a look at the difference between fear and phobia and a common thread between them. 

Anxiety and fear have a purpose. They're designed to keep us alert and safe from harm. Fear is an internal warning system that alerts us that something isn't right and that we should take action to protect ourselves. This built-in alarm system isn't infallible, and it can go haywire and cause fear to become an excessive, life-limiting phobia. Knowing the basics about fears and phobias can help you determine if your own fears are growing out of control. 

The Nature of Fear

Fear is a rational response to danger. Fear:

  • Is limited-- It applies to a specific situation. Perhaps you live in an area with rattlesnakes, you know they're venomous, and you don't want to be bitten. Therefore, you are afraid of the rattlesnakes in your area. 
  • Comes and goes-- Your fear of snakes doesn't plague you constantly. Sometimes, you can manage your fear and frolic around unbothered.
  • Matches the situation-- When you're working or relaxing outdoors, your fear of rattlesnakes intensifies, but when you're inside or in a reasonably snake-free outdoor setting, you're not afraid (or your fear is very mild and unobtrusive).
  • Doesn't take over your thoughts-- Once you're away from an area known for its rattlesnake inhabitants, you stop thinking about them. The phrase "out of sight, out of mind" more or less applies. 
  • Causes a reaction when you're confronted with it-- Tromping around an area that you know harbors rattlesnakes causes your fight-or-flight response to kick in. You have physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety and fear. When you leave the area and are no longer among snakes, your stress response settles down and symptoms disappear.
  • Doesn't restrict your life-- Your fear of snakes is unpleasant and even somewhat upsetting. When you hike with friends and loved ones where snakes could truly be present, you aren't as relaxed and joyful as your companions, but you are able to venture out on such hikes. 

Sometimes, our natural and rational fear response goes haywire, and fear begins to take over life. When that happens, it's quite possible that fear has morphed into phobia.

The Nature of Phobias

Phobias are intense, gripping, all-consuming fears. Phobias:

  • Are generalized-- You don't just fear the poisonous rattlesnakes in your area. You are deeply afraid of all snakes, even nonvenomous varieties everywhere.
  • Are persistent-- Your fear of snakes is always present, and it may actually intensify or worsen over time.
  • Don't match the situation-- The intense fear of phobias is out of proportion to the situation. You might be relaxing on your couch engrossed in a novel, and if there's a mention of a snake you instantly and deeply react. You might even slam the book shut never to open it again.
  • Can become obsessive and take over your thoughts-- You are almost constantly full of dread because you know that there are snakes somewhere within a 100-mile radius of you. Snakes might slither toward you at any time, and you are in a state of constant hypervigilance.
  • Keep your fight-or-flight response activated-- Because snakes are always somewhere in your awareness, your stress response remains on. When you do encounter a snake or are in a situation in which you might, you might experience panic attacks because you are already in flight-or-flight mode and when it intensifies, a panic attack happens. 
  • Limit your life-- Your fear of snakes is so overpowering that you no longer hike with friends or loved ones. In fact, you don't even hang out in your own yard anymore. What you, where you go, and who you spend time are restricted because of your phobia.

Fear vs. Phobia: A Common Thread

Fears and phobias are different in the way they dominate life. Fear makes certain situations feel unpleasant, while phobias make them intolerable. One thing they have in common is an anxiety-based behavior known as avoidance. 

Avoidance is a natural human behavior. It seems to make sense to avoid that which can harm us. Unfortunately, avoidance reinforces fears and can catapult them into full-blown phobias. When we avoid something, we reinforce the belief that it is dangerous, and we rob ourselves of the chance to overcome the obstacle that is blocking our path to freedom. 

Allowing ourselves to experience our fears is ultimately what tames them. This is a concept known as exposure therapy. While you can do this on your own, if your fear has become a phobia, this can be dangerous. Without proper support, you can reinforce your fear. You might consider working with a therapist to face your fears, stop avoiding, and live without the limits imposed by phobias. 

I invite you to tune into this video for a tip to help reduce avoidance. 

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2021, March 25). Fear vs. Phobia: When Our Warning Center Goes Haywire, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 23 from

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, and Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps. She has also written five critically acclaimed, award-winning novels about life with mental health challenges. She delivers workshops for all ages and provides online and in-person mental health education for youth. She has shared information about creating a quality life on podcasts, summits, print and online interviews and articles, and at speaking events. Tanya is a Diplomate of the American Institution of Stress helping to educate others about stress and provide useful tools for handling it well in order to live a healthy and vibrant life. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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