Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Is It Fear That's Stopping You, or a Genuine Phobia?

Understand the difference between fears and phobias.

We all use language differently. Many people use the word “phobic” to describe ordinary fear and trembling. “I’m phobic about flying,” a client told me just this morning. He’s a white-knuckle flyer who feels an adrenaline rush when the pilot announces that he’s putting the seat-belt sign on because he anticipates some choppy air.

My client hates takeoff and landing, and he gets a mildly upset stomach whenever he flies. He also tortures himself with a certain amount of pre-flight catastrophic thinking. But he doesn’t have a true phobic reaction to flying. If he did, he might not board a plane in the first place.

A genuine phobia comes complete with a racing heart, breathing difficulties, sweating, an overwhelming need to flee the situation, and sometimes an imminent fear of death. It causes enormous suffering. A phobic individual is gripped by paralyzing neurochemical storms that render advice like “feel the fear and do it anyway” totally irrelevant. Nor does it help to tell a phobic person to take a Valium and wash it down with several in-flight cocktails while repeating to herself that air travel is safer than driving.

If you or someone you know has a genuine phobia, the good news is that it can be treated and overcome. This is especially true if you have a specific phobia, though help is also available for panic attacks that strike for no apparent reason, and for social phobias involving a paralyzing fear of social or work interactions.

Treatment is important because avoidance won’t work—in fact, it makes things considerably worse. Research demonstrates that the harder phobics work to avoid the things they fear, the more their brains grow convinced that the threat is real.

If you’re not phobic but merely terrified, avoidance also makes the problem worse. You may need some experience with the very activity you dread, be it dating, driving, or raising your hand in a meeting. Of course only you can judge what you’re ready to take on.

If you jump right in, you may learn that the fearful imaginings cooked up by your overactive brain never come to pass. Sometimes we really do need to feel the fear and do it anyway.