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What is a phobia? How is it different from fear?

Jeffrey M. Lohr, professor of psychology, replies:

Fear may be distinguished from phobia, but a phobia by definition is not mutually exclusive of fear. The two constructs may be viewed on a continuum in terms of severity with fear being the lesser of the two evils. Fear is a primary emotion that consists of cognitive (perceptions of harm and danger), behavioral (fight or flight–escape/avoidance) and physiological (sympathetic arousal) components. The interaction among the three components serves an evolutionary adaptive function of promoting safety and survival. Fear is a necessary and normal part of life. However, fear may translate into a “phobia” when the fear response is persistent, excessive and/or unreasonable. It is under these conditions that phobia becomes a diagnosable mental disorder.

Fear becomes a phobia when the fear response is caused by the presence or anticipation of a specific object or situation. Exposure to the specified object or situation almost invariably provokes an immediate fear response. Individuals with phobias often recognize that the fear they are experiencing in response to the specified object or situation is excessive or unreasonable. A phobia often results in avoidance, anxious anticipation or distress in response to the feared situation. Phobias will also interfere with the person’s general functioning (i.e., occupational, social activities, interpersonal relationships). Types of phobias include but are not limited to animal (e.g., snakes), natural environment type (e.g., heights), blood-injection-injury type (e.g., blood draws), and situational type (e.g., airplanes) phobias.

There are other diagnosable anxiety disorders that have fear as a component but are not phobias. These include generalized anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, acute stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder and anxiety disorder not otherwise specified.

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