Fears vs. Phobias: Why they happen and what to do about it

Fear is an essential human response that has allowed our species to survive for hundreds of thousands of years. We fear large animals, fire, dark spaces, and anything else that signals the potential of danger. But we also fear many smaller things, from spiders to new technology. But how does fear work, and why do we fear things that aren’t dangerous to us?

When thinking about fear, there are a lot of essential complexities to understand. Fear is an extensive category that is often used to describe everything from a reaction to danger to symptoms of various mental disorders. It’s essential to remember that fears are different from phobias, which are also different from mental illnesses like anxiety, which may bring up fear.

Is my fear irrational? 

An irrational fear is a fear of something that does not pose a danger to you. Most people have irrational fears, such as a fear of spiders or a fear of large crowds. Even if a fear is irrational, it often feels real and can elicit the same fight-or-flight response as an actual threat. Many irrational fears are simply minor inconveniences, but some, like a fear of being in large crowds or small spaces, can significantly impact a person’s life.

If you notice irrational fears impacting your life, it is essential to acknowledge them. However, simply recognizing that they are irrational generally does not change the response that the fear will provoke in your body. In order to address that response and its impacts on your life, it is vital to explore the roots of your fear and develop coping strategies to deal with it.

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Why do we develop irrational fears?

There are many different reasons why we can develop irrational fears. Some irrational fears may come from a past experience that your brain incorrectly generalizes. For instance, if you have been in danger from being trapped in an enclosed space, it is possible to develop a fear of all enclosed areas, even if they do not pose any actual threat to you.

Scientists are unsure as to why exactly we develop irrational fears, but another cause may be the messages that we hear in media. One study found that Americans are more likely to fear terrorist attacks than their own hospitalization, despite being much more likely to be hospitalized. This may come from the widespread discussion of terrorism in popular media, which causes people to imagine the threat as much more likely than it actually is. Our brains cannot process the ratios of probability that we need to understand the likelihood of danger in our large and interconnected world, so we may often misinterpret the greatest threats to our safety.

Phobias vs. Fears

A fear can be a healthy response to danger or a momentary feeling, but a phobia is an uncontrollable, irrational, and long-term fear of something. Phobias are considered to be some of the most common mental disorders. They are also some of the easiest to treat. Phobias are generally categorized according to the source of the fear. For instance, claustrophobia is the fear of small spaces, social phobia is the fear of interacting with others, and emetophobia is the fear of vomit.

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Phobias are generally diagnosed as mental disorders when they start to impact a person’s daily life. The person may change their behaviors and lifestyle to avoid the thing they fear, resulting in a lack of access to essential resources, opportunities, and experiences. Phobias are also distinguished from fears by their severity. A person experiencing a phobia may have severe symptoms such as extreme anxiety or panic attacks from their fear.

How to overcome your fears

How you can overcome your fears will depend on the type of fear and its severity. If it is simply a fear, like the common fear of public speaking, several coping strategies may be helpful. Some people may be able to reason through their fear. Others may benefit from encouragement from others or mindfulness practices such as meditation or movement.

If you are experiencing a phobia, seek professional help. Phobias will often feel overwhelming and uncontrollable, and it can be extremely difficult to address them on your own. A mental health professional can help you understand the roots of your fear, how it operates in your body, and what steps you can take to address it.

Even if you are not sure whether you are experiencing a fear or a phobia or whether your fear is severe enough, it can be a good idea to seek help. There is no necessary standard for seeking mental health support, and a professional can help you overcome your fears and gain greater agency over your life.

Author bio:

Marie Miguel Biography

Marie Miguel has been a writing and research expert for nearly a decade, covering a variety of health-related topics. Currently, she is contributing to the expansion and growth of a free online mental health resource with BetterHelp.com. With an interest and dedication to addressing stigmas associated with mental health, she continues to specifically target subjects related to anxiety and depression.

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