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Phobias: Not Just Fear

I was browsing some of my regular news sites and came across an article in’s Living section about phobias. (It was actually a syndicated article from a New York Times company, go figure.)

In the piece, which actually gets to some good suggestions at the end, it promulgates a common misrepresentation of what a phobia is:

A “specific” phobia, or an “excessive and unreasonable fear of a specific object, place or situation,” afflicts about 19 million people in the U.S., according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America.

Okay, that’s fine. That’s the shorthand version of what a phobia is. But the real diagnosis includes meeting all 6 criteria, including this very important one (often overlooked in the mainstream media):

The diagnosis is appropriate only if the avoidance, fear, or anxious anticipation of encountering the phobic stimulus interferes significantly with the person’s daily routine, occupational functioning, or social life, or if the person is markedly distressed about having the phobia.

What if the diagnostic criteria had left out that the “person is markedly distressed about having the phobia?” I’d bet the incidence of phobias would be far less. Being afraid of fear is, I’d argue, a normal, natural human reaction. It multiplies our fearful thoughts and feelings, and can happen to anyone — not just someone with a phobia.

Without that catch-all phrase at the end of this criteria, you’re left with a fear of something that would have to cause you significant interference in your daily routine, work, or social life. For most people with a phobia, the phobia simply doesn’t impact their daily lives that much.

The reason you don’t see drug makers lining up to research and market a dozen new medications to treat phobias is that when they do crop up, for most people they are simply more easily avoided than faced and dealt with. For instance, if you live on a farm in Iowa, your fear of heights may have little opportunity to come out. Similarly, if you live in New York City, being afraid of pigs isn’t likely going to significantly interfere with your daily routine.

While specific phobias, such as being afraid of heights or of spiders, may be fairly common (affecting anywhere from 7 to 9% of the U.S. population at any given time), they are also fairly commonly avoided, which also avoids the accompanying fear and panic.

So while avoidance doesn’t do much good with depression or bipolar disorder, it actually appears to be a pretty common and effective coping mechanism used for this common psychiatric malady.

Read the article: The mystery of freaky phobias

Phobias: Not Just Fear

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Phobias: Not Just Fear. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 6 Oct 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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