8 Ways To Tell If Your Fear Is Actually A Phobia

by Eva Taylor Grant
BDG Media, Inc.

Everyone is scared of something. But thinking "I really don't like horror movies with spiders in them" is vastly different than having a debilitating, anxiety-provoking fear — also known as a phobia. The difference between fear and phobia is clinically understood, but it can be difficult to differentiate these symptoms in yourself without really breaking it down. Luckily, there are a few concrete signs.

So what's the basic difference? "We all fear some things, to a degree, but not all of us experience our fears as phobias," Caleb Backe, a Health and Wellness Expert for Maple Holistics, tells Bustle. "The response to a phobia is much more extreme, to the point of disrupting your life in ways which you would otherwise never consider." And while the difference between fear and phobia does boil down to stress levels and how much it impacts your daily life, dealing with and treating a phobia is entirely possible.

"[Most often,] phobias are treated successfully by mental health professionals, usually psychologists, who are trained in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy," Dr. Elena Mikalsen, a clinical psychologist tells Bustle. "Mainly, the treatment of a specific phobia will involve gradual exposure to the feared object or situation." So if you don't know where to start, it's good to know that there's hope.

"Having a phobia does not mean you are not able to live out a good life," Backe Says. "It means you may need to work on your fears together with a professional, and become stronger and more courageous through exploration of self." And who doesn't want to become stronger?

Here are seven signs your fear might actually be a phobia, according to experts.


The Fear Is Out Of Proportion With The Risk

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Obviously, you don't want to be around something you're scared of. But a phobia, unlike a fear, creates a disproportionate response.

"Fear in its purest form is a normal reaction to a threat ([like] a snarling dog, a thunderstorm that is threatening to blow trees onto your house), and not a fear of a teacup dog or a weather forecast that says there 'may be a thunderstorm,'" Dr. Ramani Durvasula, Professor of Psychology Cal State LA, and clinical psychologist, tells Bustle.

Don't be ashamed, though, if something seemingly small triggers this reaction in your brain. "Phobias are created when the brain associates an object or situation with a highly threatening or traumatic event," Ofra Obejas, child therapist, tells Bustle. If this sounds like you, it's a good idea to reach out to a mental health professional.


You Have Serious Physical Symptoms

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Every once and a while, getting scared is going to make your heart race. But if you live with a phobia, these sorts of physical symptoms are more common — and more intense.

"Whenever an experience or the sight of something triggers rapid breathing, nausea, anxiety, trembling, a sense of terror, and a total fear of losing control, that's a phobia," Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a licensed clinical psychologist, faculty member at the Columbia University Teacher’s College, and founder of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services, tells Bustle.

These uncomfortable physical symptoms can lead to even more stress, if you want to avoid your reaction to the fear stimulus, as well as the stimulus itself. Luckily, these physical symptoms can be mitigated with the help of a therapist or other mental health professional.


You Change Your Lifestyle To Avoid The Thing You Fear

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This is one of the biggest red flags of a phobia: avoidance. "Phobias cause people to dramatically change how they live their lives," Laura Petiford, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) and a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner-BC (PMHNP), tells Bustle. "People with a phobia of driving over a bridge, for example, would go miles out of their way to avoid the discomfort of encountering one." For non-clinical fears, this isn't the case.

"One can be afraid to speak in public and feel uneasy but push through to participate in meetings at work," Dr. Hafeez explains. "Someone with a phobia would avoid speaking up in meetings, would compromise their work performance, may even pick a profession they do alone which requires little if any interaction or presentation for example." Like other mental health concerns, it is often the level to which it affects your life professionals take note of.


You Avoid Reminders Of The Thing, Not Just The Thing Itself

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Another way to examine whether your fear is something more is to ask yourself: "Can I handle media that includes this thing?" In general, phobias exist even when the stimulus isn't physically present.

"Fear tends to be reactive and protective when the threat is present, whereas a phobia is something that may persist even when the feared stimulus is not present," Dr. Durvasula explains. "[It] generalizes to even non-noxious forms of the feared stimulus." In everyday life, this could look like avoiding like elevators or protected observation decks if you have a fear of heights. In more serious cases, it could also include being scared of images of the thing you're afraid of, or being afraid of even talking about it. Again, if this is the case for you, it's worth it to talk to a professional about how the fear might be affecting your life.


You Notice Other People Don't React The Same Way

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According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 10 percent of people have a phobia — classified under an anxiety disorder. So, although you more than likely have a friend who shares the experience, you also likely interact with people every day who don't.

You can use the people around you to gauge your experience. "You might have a phobia if your fear reaction seems to be much more extreme than that of others," Dr, Marla W. Deibler, licensed clinical psychologist and Executive Director for The Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia, tells Bustle. Talk to your friends about your fear, if you feel comfortable doing so. In a time where people are more and more open about mental health, they may be able to support you through it.


There's A Big Difference Between This And Other Fears Of Yours

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Another way to use comparison to your advantage is to check in with yourself. Everyone has a variety of fears. If one of yours stands out from the rest, then it's worth examining that.

"The go-to method of discerning a fear from a phobia is exploring your own reaction to it," Backe says. "Is your reaction within the range of normal and natural? That is, it is roughly the same as your other responses to things which may frighten you?" Having one particular fear that is more debilitating than others could be a sign of a phobia.


You Feel Unable To Cope

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As is true with a lot of mental health conditions, if there comes a point that you feel like you can't support yourself through the experience, you deserve to get help.

"Having a phobia significantly affects a person's ability to cope with any situation that involves or may involve the feared object," GinaMarie Guarino, licensed mental health counselor (LMHC), tells Bustle. "Phobias prevent people from developing healthy coping skills for stress and cause a significant impact on the quality of life for the affected person." Luckily there are a lot of options to explore, not just exposure therapy, that can help you feel better.


Your Fear Is Long-Term

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Mental health conditions often have a time period in which they're bothering someone before they can be diagnosed. In the DSM V, a specific phobia exists for at least six months. This is quite different than a fear, which can ebb and flow.

"Fear can happen sometimes. Phobias remain consistent over time." Ross Grossman, MA, licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) at Affinity Therapy Services, tells Bustle. So if living with this fear has become your new normal, there's a chance it's a treatable condition, not a painful personality quirk.

Of course, no diagnosis can be made without the help of a professional. But if a fear of yours — and the anxiety surrounding it — is taking up significant space in your life, you deserve to give it attention and care.