Fear vs. Phobia: What’s the Difference?

This is a phobia.
This is a phobia. / id-work/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

There’s more than one way to describe feeling scared about a given thing. So when is a fear actually a phobia—and where does anxiety fit into it all?

Fear vs. Phobia

According to the American Psychological Association, a fear is “a basic, intense emotion aroused by the detection of imminent threat, involving an immediate alarm reaction that mobilizes the organism by triggering a set of physiological changes.” Your heart starts racing, your muscles tense up, and your brain chooses to fight or flee the threat.

A phobia, meanwhile, is “a persistent and irrational fear of a specific situation, object, or activity … which is consequently either strenuously avoided or endured with marked distress.” The operative phrase here is “persistent and irrational.” Basically, when you have a phobia of something, you experience a physiological fear response to it even when there’s no real danger present.

Say, for example, a great white shark crosses your path while you’re surfing in the ocean. It’s rational for any human in that situation to feel fear: The great white has spectacular hunting skills and a few hundred very sharp teeth. But if you have a phobia of sharks—known as galeophobia—you might feel that fear whenever you even just see a video of a shark. Your galeophobia could keep you from going to the beach or visiting an aquarium (which almost never have great whites in captivity, though they do play host to other shark species).

Fear vs. Anxiety

All phobias are technically anxiety disorders, so it makes sense that fear differs from anxiety much in the same way that it differs from phobia. As the APA explains, fear is “an appropriate short-term response to a present, clearly identifiable threat,” while anxiety “is a future-oriented, long-term response focused on a diffuse threat.” Fear is a reaction to the shark swimming toward you; an anxiety disorder is that reaction to sharks in general.

Not all anxiety is a sign of an anxiety disorder. “Anxiety in itself is not bad. Normal levels of anxiety lie on one end of a spectrum and may present as low levels of fear or apprehension, mild sensations of muscle tightness and sweating, or doubts about your ability to complete a task,” psychologist Luana Marques writes for Harvard Health Blog.

If you’re experiencing such severe and frequent anxiety that it’s interfering with your everyday life, though, then it’s probably a good idea to discuss it with your healthcare provider. If the anxiety is specific to one thing—sharks, insects, heights, public speaking, small spaces, etc.—you might have a phobia. But there are plenty of other kinds of anxiety disorders, too.