Fear ≠ Phobias

Julie Barrios and Ashley Quic

Almost everyone has a fear or two, whether it be of clowns or of annual doctor checkups. For the most part, these fears are small and don’t affect your daily life. When fears become extreme and start to cause enormous distress and begin to interfere with your daily life, however, it becomes a phobia. 

What is a phobia? 

A phobia is a consistent, extreme, irrational fear of an object, living thing, situation or environment. Phobias are categorized as a type of anxiety disorder connected to something specific. While most phobias are developed in early childhood and teenage years, they can also develop later in life. If the phobia is not avoided, the person may experience intense anxiety when faced with their fear, sometimes leading to a panic attack. 

If you have a phobia, you probably know that your fear poses little to no actual danger to you, but you can’t control the anxious feeling that makes you feel terrified. When faced with the thing you fear, panic takes over and the feeling is overwhelming. If you have cynophobia (fear of dogs), for example, you might steer clear of the park because you might see a dog. If you have Acrophobia (fear of heights), you might turn down a great internship because it’s on the 10th floor of an office building. 

“When I’m older, I want to get a tattoo but the thought of a needle piercing my skin taunts my mind,” said Alyssa Ramirez a junior at DVD. Her fear of needles started when she was a little girl, every time she would break a rule or not follow directions, her parents would tell her if she kept misbehaving they would take her to get a shot. “I realized I had this fear as soon as I realized how much pain the needle would cost.” 

Her fear affects her life when she attends the doctors to receive a vaccine or the dentist. There are many ways Ramirez has tried to cope with her fear but there’s only one way that kind of helps her face it. Before going to get her shot she mentally prepares beforehand, she breathes in and until she feels calm.

Fears vs. phobias

Fear is normal and even helpful to keep us from entering harmful situations. It is programmed into our nervous system and works like an automatic “fight-or-flight” instinct. We have this survival instinct that alerts our body and mind to protect ourselves when we sense danger or feel unsafe. But with phobias, the fear is out of proportion to the possible danger. To the person with the phobia, however, it might not feel that way because the danger feels real and very strong to them.

Survey results of phobias found among DVC students

There are four general types of phobias and fears:

  • Fear related to animals (insects, reptiles, rodents, dogs, etc.)
  • Fear related to the natural environment (storms, water, darkness, heights, etc.)
  • Fears related to specific situations (flying, driving, riding an elevator, bridges tunnels, etc.)
  • Fears related to blood, injury, or medical issues (needles, medical procedures, broken bones, falls, etc.)

Some phobias don’t fall under these four common categories. These include fear of choking, clowns, drowning, loud noises, etc. Other common phobias that don’t fit into the four categories above are:

Agoraphobia: the fear of situations or places from which it would be difficult or embarrassing to escape from

  • People with agoraphobia fear they may have a panic attack in “open spaces” such as movie theaters, airplanes, shopping malls, etc. and they might only feel safe at home

Social Phobia, or social anxiety: the fear of public humiliation, being singled out or judged by others in a social situation

  • Some examples where a social phobia can be severe are public speaking, eating in public, ordering food at a restaurant, talking to strangers, being called on in class, answering the phone, etc. 

“Having a fear of social situations is something I have to deal with every day. I overthinking my words when having a conversation with others,” said Cesar Salazar, a student at DVS whose fear of social situations started at the beginning of high school when he became more self-aware.“I don’t want them to get the wrong impression and think that I said one thing but meant another.”  

Salazar is affected by his fear on a regular basis when he’s talking to teachers, his friends, or even new people he just meets. His fear holds him back from expressing his actual thoughts and personality. Ways Salazar copes with his phobia is not speaking much when he is having a conversation and just listens or just waits for the conversation to come to an end. He reflects on his words at the end of each day. 

Symptoms of phobias:

Symptoms for phobias can span from butterflies in your stomach to full-blown panic attacks. The most common symptoms include: 

  • Sweating
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Racing or pounding heart
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • A churning stomach
  • Anxiety or panic 
  • confusion and disorientation

Self-help strategies for treating a phobia:

Learn to calm down quickly:

  • When feeling anxious or have physical phobia symptoms, such as difficulty breathing and pounding heart remember that you are in control. You can perform simple breathing exercises such as taking deep breaths, in through your nose out through your mouth.
  • You can also use your senses or movement to relieve that anxious feeling and distract yourself from your fear:
    • Movement: you can go for a walk or go on a run somewhere where you feel comfortable
    • Sight: you can look at sunsets, pictures of loved ones/fun memories, watch movies that you enjoy
    • Smell: turn on a candle, bake some cookies, go outside for fresh air
    • Sound: listen to your favorite music, podcast, nature sounds
    • Touch: pet your pet or a soft blanket
    • Taste: eat something that you enjoy

If self-help is not enough to support please contact a professional therapist.