Stop Casually Throwing The Word 'Phobia' Around

There's a difference between being afraid of something and having a phobia of it.
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Exhibiting some level of fear toward spiders is pretty common. But when the mere thought of the creature makes you excessively anxious and gets your heart racing, you may be experiencing signs of a phobia.

A specific phobia is described as a strong, irrational fear of certain places, events or objects, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. Phobias can keep you from enjoying activities with loved ones, job opportunities and possibly even cause you to keep those around you from doing certain things.

Take Howie Mandel, for example. The TV personality has been open about his intense fear of germs, which frequently interferes with his everyday life. He has said that he often avoids shaking hands or touching items that could contain bacteria as a way to abate his anxiety.

In my mind [my hand] is like a petri dish,” he said in a 2009 interview. “Otherwise I would spend the day, as I have in the past in my life, in the men’s room rubbing and scrubbing and scalding.”

Since fear is a normal response your body has to perceived danger, phobias are often mistaken as just an exaggerated fear. In reality, they are actually classified as an anxiety disorder. That’s why casually classifying something that scares you or labeling something you distaste as a phobia outside of a scientific context can be so damaging. It can (albeit unintentionally) contribute to stigma.

To clear up the confusion between a fear and phobia, HuffPost asked experts to explain fears vs. real phobias and how to manage them. Here’s what you need to know:

Breaking Down The Differences

The main contrast between a phobia and fear is that a phobia is debilitating, meaning it can prevent someone from carrying out normal tasks or their everyday routine, according to Anna Hickner, a clinical psychologist based in New York.

“Anxiety and fear are both adaptive and keep us safe, but phobias elicit an emotional response that is out of proportion of the perceived threatening thing or event,” Hickner said.

“Anxiety and fear are both adaptive and keep us safe, but phobias elicit an emotional response that is out of proportion of the perceived threatening thing or event.”

- Anna Hickner, clinical psychologist

Carolyn Rodriguez, a psychiatrist at Stanford Health Care, said normal fears don’t interfere with an individual’s ability to work, go to social outings or have relationships, whereas phobias might. Being around the feared situation or object can also cause panic attacks, which are accompanied by symptoms such as heart palpitations, sweating and trembling.

Stephanie Dowd, a clinical psychologist and co-director at Behavioral Psych Studio in New York, explained that a phobia can be referred to as an irrational fear because the specific object or situation would typically not cause harm.

“A person who has a phobia of dogs may feel extreme panic around dogs and avoid interacting with dogs at all cost,” Dowd said. “The reaction is intense and does not fit the facts, meaning dogs do not cause imminent danger but a person will react as though they do.”

Dowd also mentioned that a person with a phobia will generalize their intense fear and anxiety of the object or situation. “For instance, a person will be fearful not only of big loud dogs, but also small quiet ones too,” she said.

Although not much is known about the biological causes of phobias, Hickner suggested that past experiences and environmental factors can have an influence.

“Phobias usually develop after having a bad or traumatic experience, such as being stuck in an elevator or being attacked by an animal,” Hickner said. “But [they] can also develop due to someone else’s influence, such as a family member or someone close to the individual, who has the same phobia.”

However, Carmen Lalonde, a staff therapist at Behavioral Psych Studio, said that it’s possible for a fear to turn into a phobia over time.

“Persistent repeated avoidance of a feared object combined with irrational thoughts that the object is dangerous when in fact, it is not and panic symptoms can result in a phobia,” Lalonde said.

The most common categories of phobias are animals, natural environment, injection-related, situational, vomiting and loud sounds. Within these categories contain phobias such as arachnophobia (fear of spiders), trypanophobia (fear of injections), cynophobia (fear of dogs) and agoraphobia (fear of being in crowds), according to Raquel Cumba, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York.

Some of these are even on display in pop culture. Mysophobia, which is more commonly known as germaphobia, is one that is often seen in movies and TV shows. On “The Big Bang Theory,” Sheldon Cooper is a character that is portrayed as a germaphobe that is overly concerned with hygiene.

The Simpsons” had an episode centered around Marge Simpson’s fear of flying, also known as aerophobia, where she was shown hyperventilating and screaming to get off of a plane. In this case, although Marge was able to physically be on the plane, she still displayed signs of terror.

Do Phobias Last Forever?

Even though phobias can put restrictions on your everyday routine, they are treatable using a variety of therapy methods.

“Research has shown that interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy and specifically, exposure and response prevention, can reduce and alleviate phobias,” Dowd said.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of psychotherapy, is where you can discuss your experiences and your therapist gives you assignments to work on related to your phobia outside of your sessions. Exposure and response prevention, on the other hand, is where clients are gradually exposed to the phobias that prompt the extreme anxiety in the first place. Then they’re taught how to deal with them.

Stacia Casillo, a psychologist and director of the Ross Center in New York, said that exposure therapy helped one of her clients who had a fear of flying. This type of therapy includes learning about how planes and turbulence work, being exposed to the flying-related scenarios either through visualizing them in their head, watching videos of them, virtual simulations and, if they’re comfortable, getting on an actual plane with a therapist.

“Her phobia was impacting her career growth and she was missing out on opportunities to vacation and travel with her friends,” Casillo said. “In the last year alone, she has gone on multiple trips, both for work as well as for fun, across the United States and Europe.”

“You do not want anxiety making decisions for you. Therapy will allow you to overcome these fears and feel like you have more control over your life.”

- Stacia Casillo, psychologist and director of the Ross Center in New York

Casillo said that one of the biggest issues about phobias is that most people don’t seek help for them, and instead continue to alter their environment or avoid what’s causing them distress.

“I often tell my patients with anxiety that while this may work in the beginning, you will find your world will get smaller and smaller,” Casillo said. “You do not want anxiety making decisions for you. Therapy will allow you to overcome these fears and feel like you have more control over your life.”

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