What’s the Difference Between Healthy Fear and Phobia?

– Posted in: Phobias

Phobia - man scared of spiderThe basic definition of a phobia is an intense irrational fear. Meaning a fear that causes you distress when there is no logical reason you should be distressed.

Agoraphobia, social phobia, claustrophobia, and arachnophobia are the most common phobias people suffer from. However, a phobia isn’t limited to these particular categories.

A phobia can be an irrational fear of any object, place, animal, situation, or feeling. Really, the definition of phobia is broad. However, only a trained professional can diagnose a phobia. [7]

Phobias are more pronounced than a healthy fear. However, their severity can differ person to person. If a phobia becomes very severe, a person may organize their life in way to avoid their object of fear because it causes them excessive distress.

Yet, phobias do not always cause problems. If the object of fear is very rare, the person may not need or want help. However, some phobias cannot be avoided so the phobic reactions cannot be avoided. [2][3]

What’s a Healthy Fear?

No matter how much we dislike fear, it plays an important function in our lives. A healthy amount of fear keeps us safe and away from danger. Fear let’s us know that a high cliff is dangerous, a shady person may be dangerous, and not to swim too far off from shore.

Fear is an evolutionary advantage which keeps us alive. In fact, it makes up the oldest part of our brain. It’s an efficient cognitive system the works very well at keeping us alive. [2]

Basically, healthy fear alerts us when something is or may be wrong. An unhealthy fear is a response to an imagined danger that isn’t real.

Admittedly, there is a fine line. Sometimes we may fear something when there is nothing to fear. Humans are imperfect and we don’t get everything right. If this happens from time to time, you don’t have a problem. You made a common mistake that anyone can make.

However, when it becomes a fixation, it’s no longer healthy fear. When you become fixated on one particular fear it becomes a disorder. So what is a fixation? By fixation I mean a fear that becomes so invasive that it’s all you can think about. [2]

Healthy fear and Phobic Fear compared

Healthy Fear:

  • Doesn’t affect your daily life
  • Is caused by real threats
  • Lasts only as long you’re in danger
  • You forget about the fear once the danger is over

Phobic Fear:

  • Affects your daily life
  • Is caused by perceived threats
  • Lasts only as long as you’re perceiving danger
  • You become fixated or obsessed on the danger reoccurring
  • How to Recognize If You Have Phobia

    Recognizing that you have phobia can be difficult, especially if you’re still coming terms with it. Denial and cognitive dissonance (downplaying the problem) are common defense mechanisms used to deflect the notion that we have problem.

    Other times, we are just not aware that we have a problem. We can’t articulate or describe something we have no comprehension of or think is normal.

    The simple fact is we have a hard time coming to terms with issues that we are ignorant of or scared of. This is a normal part of life. These defense mechanisms help us deal with an unpredictable life.

    However, when these mechanisms start to impede your ability to live a normal life, they’re a problem that should be adressed. [2][3]

    There are three competing theories on how phobias develop

    The psychoanalytic theory is based on Freud’s theories that there is an unresolved issue repressed by the ego which manifests itself as a phobia. This is an older theory that isn’t really used by today’s therapists to treat a phobia.

    In behaviorism theory, people develop a phobia by being negatively conditioned by their environment. This is the modern view for most therapists and who use it to treat a phobia.

    Lastly, genetic theory proposes that some people are genetically predispositioned to have a higher arousal state when scared so they develop anxiety and phobic disorders to cope. Although a family history is useful information as a diagnostic tool to treat phobia, there are no genetic treatments available. [2][3]

    Five signs of phobia

    If you think you have a phobia, here are five signs that may help you recognize that you have this disorder:

    1. You’ve Suffered Through a Traumatic Event

    A traumatic event is one of the most common factors that can cause someone to develop a phobia. A traumatic event is any event that causes a person an exaggerated amount of stress that involves a near death experience like an assault, severe abuse, war, a terrorist attack, shooting, and etc.

    However, an event that may not be a big deal to one person, may cause severe distress in another. Some traumatic events don’t have to be necessarily real. As long as the person feels a perceived threat, they can become traumatized. For example, there are studies that show some children have developed PTSD just by watching television. [7]

    2. Your Fear Reaction is Extreme

    Fear is a healthy, normal and necessary emotional response. Evolutionary, fear has been a critical component to keeping humans alive. Through fear, we learn certain behaviors, places, and things can be bad.

    However, with healthy fear, we are able to live a healthy and normal life. When you have a phobia, your fear of a certain object, place, or thing can cause you severe distress. When a person is triggered, it can cause them to relive the traumatic event or cause an uncontrollable physical reaction.

    If you have a phobia, you may suffer from any of the following physical symptoms:

    Symptoms of an Extreme Fear Reaction

    1. Heart Palpitations
    2. Dizziness and Lightheadedness
    3. Nausea
    4. Shortness of Breath
    5. Shaking and Trembling
    6. Upset Stomach
    7. Panic Attacks

    Sometimes it’s not the traumatic event itself that causes you distress, but something associated with that event. For example, a phobic fear of assault may manifest itself when you attempt to leave your home and result in agoraphobia. [2][3]

    3. Family Members Suffer From Phobia

    Some phobias have a familial component. For better or worse, our upbringing plays a critical role in our development. If a family member suffers from a phobia, there is a chance it’s unconsciously learned and passed on. It may not manifest exactly like your parents phobia, but there will be similarities.

    It’s important to understand that this doesn’t make parents bad. In fact, it’s a sign they lived a complicated and hard life but were never to able to cope with their distress in a healthy way. [4]

    4. You Have Mental Health Issues

    If you suffer from a mental health issue like depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, your chances of developing a phobia are higher. Some mental disorders like anxiety disorder or panic disorder tend to be diagnosed comorbidly with a phobic disorder.

    This does not mean a mental illness caused the phobia. Rather, it might be associated with that disorder and is manifesting through a phobic disorder. [3]

    5. Your Family Has a Genetic History of Mental Disorders

    Genetics play a crucial role in mental illness. Phobic disorders tend to be passed down. Although they can be learned through our environment, the risk of developing a phobia increases if you have a genetic history.

    However, many scientist believe that these genes have to be activated. Meaning that a healthy family environment can prevent or reduce the risk of mental disorders from arising. [4]

    What to Do If You Have a Phobia?

    If you have a phobia, there are options. The first step is admitting you have a problem. This in-itself can be a problem for many. Some people don’t want to take medications or be thought as crazy.

    However, having a phobia doesn’t mean you’re crazy. Your fear is well founded. Life can be scary and your body is responding to that fact. Your cognitive function is just working in overdrive.

    For a minor phobia, you can self-treat. The best way to do this is by using exposure therapy. Basically, you face your fear in small doses until your phobia goes away.

    However, complex phobias are too complicated to self treat. Therapy is a great way to overcome a phobia. Cognitive behavior therapy is a common technique used by therapists to treat people who suffer from a phobia. This technique is used to help the patient identify negative thought patterns and eliminate them by learning better coping strategies. On a case by case basis, a therapist might recommend medication to help cope with the symptoms caused by anxiety. [1]

    Conclusion: How to Love Yourself

    If you’re reading this, it means you’re ready to learn healthy coping strategies. Phobias can be hard to deal with. Many people will think negatively about themselves because they are having problems.

    Part of being human is knowing you aren’t perfect and everyone faces difficulties. To become healthy you have to understand that negativity is bad coping strategy. Although recognizing a problem is helpful, one must face the problem head on.

    To love yourself is to accept yourself, flaws and all, and ask for help. You can overcome.

    Polly Tlg has always been interested in holistic and alternative ways of healing. Ayurveda and yoga are the best medicines for her. Deeply intuitive she finds that true healing surpasses the boundaries of the physical body and embraces the emotional, energetic and subtlest layers of our being. Polly helps people to know how to be healthy and beautiful using only natural remedies. She is an expert in Shilajit, what is one of the main superfood of Ayurveda. She believes that nature is the best source of human health. Check her recent article about nutrients where you can find the complete list of trace minerals.


    1. Fader, J. (2019). Three Ways To Face Your Phobia. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-new-you/201409/three-ways-face-your-phobia
    2. Fritscher, L. (2019). Do You Have A Fear or Phobia?. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/fear-or-phobia-2671982
    3. Legg, T. (2019). Phobias: Causes, Types, Treatment, Symptoms & More. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/phobia-simple-specific
    4. Neuman, F. (2019). Are Some Phobias Inborn?. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fighting-fear/201209/are-some-phobias-inborn
    5. Neuman, F. (2019). Overcoming Phobias: 6 Important Principles. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fighting-fear/201206/overcoming-phobias-6-important-principles
    6. Hohlbaum, C. (2019). The Benefits of Fear. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-power-slow/201307/the-benefits-fear
    7. Treatment for dealing with PTSD, Trauma and Phobias. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.hgi.org.uk/useful-information/treatment-dealing-ptsd-trauma-phobias

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