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Is it a fear or a phobia?

Is it a fear or a phobia?


Almost everyone has an irrational fear or two—of lizards, dogs, or even going to the dentist for your usual dental check-up. For most people, these fears are minor. But when fears become so severe that they cause tremendous anxiety and interfere with your normal life, they’re called phobias. The good news is that phobias can be managed and cured. Self-help strategies and therapy can help you overcome your fears and start living the life you want.

What are phobias?

A phobia is an intense fear of something that, in reality, poses little or no actual danger. Common phobias and fears include closed-in places, heights, highway driving, flying insects, snakes, and needles. However, you can develop phobias of virtually anything. Most phobias develop in childhood, but they can also develop in adults.

If you have a phobia, you probably realize that your fear is irrational, yet you still can’t control your feelings. Just thinking about the feared object or situation may make you anxious. And when you’re actually exposed to the thing you fear, the terror is automatic and overwhelming.

The experience is so unnerving that you may go to great lengths to avoid it—inconveniencing yourself or even changing your lifestyle. If you have claustrophobia, for example, you might turn down a lucrative job offer if you have to ride the elevator to get to the office. If you have a fear of heights, you might drive an extra 20 miles in order to avoid a tall bridge.

Understanding your phobia is the first step to overcoming it. It’s important to know that phobias are common. (Having a phobia doesn’t mean you’re crazy!) It also helps to know that phobias are highly treatable. You can overcome your anxiety and fear, no matter how out of control it feels.

“Normal” fears vs phobias or “irrational” fears

It is normal and even helpful to experience fear in dangerous situations. Fear is an adaptive human response. It serves a protective purpose, activating the automatic “fight-or-flight” response. With our bodies and minds alert and ready for action, we are able to respond quickly and protect ourselves.

But with phobias the threat is greatly exaggerated or non-existent. For example, it is only natural to be afraid of a snarling pit bull, but it is irrational to be terrified of a friendly poodle on a leash, as you might be if you have a dog phobia.

The difference between normal fear and a phobia

Normal fear
  • Feeling anxious when flying through turbulence or taking off during a storm
  • Experiencing butterflies when peering down from the top of a skyscraper or climbing a tall ladder
  • Getting nervous when you see a pit bull or a Rottweiler
  • Feeling a little queasy when getting a shot or when your blood is being drawn


  • Not going to your best friend’s island wedding because you’d have to fly there
  • Turning down a great job because it’s on the 10th floor of the office building
  • Steering clear of the park because you might see a dog
  • Avoiding necessary medical treatments or doctor’s check-ups because you’re terrified of needles.

Normal fears in children

Many childhood fears are natural and tend to develop at specific ages. For example, many young children are afraid of the dark and may need a night light to sleep. That doesn’t mean they have a phobia. In most cases, they will grow out of this fear as they get older.

Which of my child’s fears are normal?

According to the Child Anxiety Network, the following fears are extremely common and considered normal:

0-2 years – Loud noises, strangers, separation from parents, large objects.

3-6 years – Imaginary things such as ghosts, monsters, the dark, sleeping alone, strange noises.

7-16 years – More realistic fears, such as injury, illness, school performance, death, natural disasters.

To be continued