A lot of the time, the words fear and phobia are used interchangeably. But the English language has a lot of subtleties and the distinction between the two words – whilst subtle – is real. So, what’s the difference between a fear of something and a phobia of something?
What is fear?
The dictionary definition of fear is “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.”
Which doesn’t sound too ominous at first glance.
After all, an unpleasant emotion could be almost anything from a tear coming to your eye right the way through to out and out revulsion. And all points in between.
Fear can be a good thing. It’s the kind of emotion that causes us to flee from situations and events that could be harmful to us. So that cliff edge that you were about to step over causes a feeling of fear that’s powerful enough for you to take a step back and save yourself from plunging into the abyss.
Likewise the confrontation with an angry wolf or bear or automobile (to use a more likely occurrence) can induce enough fear to give your survival instincts enough time to kick in and save you from an unpleasant experience.
So, strictly speaking, a fear is based on a reasonably rational assumption about something that could cause you harm in some way, shape or form.
What is a phobia?
Again, to quote the dictionary definition, a phobia is “an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.”
So, at its most basic, a phobia is a fear that’s on steroids. The normal fear you have of something has taken a step up and is now bigger and bolder than a regular fear or worry about something. Chances are that you’ve broken out in a cold sweat or are already running for the hills rather than facing whatever it is that you have a phobia of.
But delving deeper into that dictionary definition, you can see that a phobia doesn’t have to be based on anything that’s actually rational.
A fear of a grizzly bear that turned extreme would still be based on the fact that the creature is likely to be more powerful than you and isn’t really Yogi Bear in disguise.
An irrational fear is something different completely, which is where it turns into a phobia.
Phobias can cover all sorts of topics. They can be an extreme version of a fear of heights where, for instance, you won’t go within half a mile of a cliff edge.
Or they can get you to panic about something that near enough everyone else treats as normal – crossing a bridge, being part of a crowd, that kind of thing.
Do fears and phobias ever meet?
There’s sometimes a crossover involved between fears and phobias.
Something like a fear of public speaking is quite common. But if you take it to an extreme then it can turn itself into a phobia and mean that you will do everything you can to avoid the problem.
So there’s not always a clear cut difference between fears and phobias.