We often hear about phobias nowadays, without really knowing the difference between fears and phobias. And yet, there is almost no connection between the two.
We often hear about phobias nowadays, without really knowing the difference between fears and phobias. And yet, there is almost no connection between the two. Fear is a normal emotion that all humans experience, while a phobia is a real behavioural disorder that manifests as an irrational fear of something that does not pose any actual danger.
WHAT IS FEAR?
Fear is an emotion that all humans experience from their earliest childhood. It is as normal as joy and sadness. In some people, fear is so strong that it is paralyzing, while in others it acts as a stimulant. In fact, the main purpose of fear is to protect us from dangerous situations.
When faced with a situation that frightens us, our brain receives a message to be on alert. The brain in turn sends a message to a structure located at its base, the amygdala, which then releases stimulating chemicals into the bloodstream; these substances, which include adrenaline, act on the muscles, heart, blood vessels and various organs, putting them under pressure. This is why our heart starts to beat faster, our muscles become tense, and we get shivers and tremble when we are afraid. All of this is actually intended to put our body on alert, ready to react quickly and efficiently if the danger does manifest.
Some people enjoy the sensation so much that they voluntarily put themselves in situations that trigger intense fear. Fans of bungee jumping, skydiving and other extreme sports are very familiar with the physical manifestations of fear…
Everyone reacts differently to fear. In some individuals, fear can increase their attention and concentration. It can therefore have beneficial effects by putting people under positive pressure. One example of this is the “nerves” that performers experience before going on stage. Other people, on the other hand, are paralyzed by fear and find it difficult to perform any action under such conditions. Lastly, fear can have an effect on other organs: some people can get hot flashes, skin eruptions, abdominal cramps… It is important to remember, however, that intense fear that triggers strong reactions is not necessarily a phobia!
PHOBIA: AN IRRATIONAL FEAR
Unlike fear, which is considered a normal emotion even when it is very intense, phobia is an abnormal behaviour. Psychiatrists even categorize it as an anxiety disorder. A phobia is defined as an intense and irrational fear of something that does not pose any danger. Some of the most common objects of phobias include spiders, closed spaces, darkness and height, even though objectively speaking none of these elements poses any real threat.
Fear pushes us to manage a situation and often to overcome it, whereas phobias trigger avoidance behaviours. Persons with a phobia will not try to confront the object of their fear; rather, they will do everything in their power to avoid it. Such behaviour can easily become inconvenient and hinder the person’s quality of life. It is estimated that 7 percent of the Western population suffers from simple phobias (a category that excludes social phobias).
Social phobia and agoraphobia are two types of phobias in particular that can ruin the quality of life of those who suffer from them. Approximately 15 percent of the population is said to suffer from one or the other, although social phobia is much more common than agoraphobia. Social phobia is characterized by an intense fear of public situations and of being judged by others. Individuals with this phobia will avoid any situation where they might have to speak in front of a group, for example. The disorder is often associated with low self-esteem. Agoraphobia, on the other hand, involves an intense fear of crowds and spaces that are too open or too crowded. These two types of phobias greatly impair these individuals’ quality of life because it prevents them from communicating with others, to meet new people and to live new experiences. These phobias are serious and must be promptly treated, since they can lead to social isolation and depression. Persons affected tend to develop addictive behaviours, such as alcoholism or drug addiction, in order to forget their problems.
KNOWING THE DIFFERENCE
A person can be intensely afraid of something without it necessarily being a phobia. For example, it’s normal for some people to be afraid of bees, to be uncomfortable in closed spaces or to be scared of the dark. Even if these fears involve avoidance behaviours (such as running away from bees or keeping a night-light on), they will not be defined as phobias unless they cause suffering or a change in quality of life.
A fear can be considered a phobia when it becomes irrational, always elicits avoidance behaviours, decreases quality of life and hinders the person’s everyday activities. It then becomes important to consult a healthcare professional because phobias can be cured. The treatment usually involves cognitive behaviour therapy, which helps patients to gradually and progressively face the object of their phobia. The treatment is often associated with psychotherapy.
Don’t hesitate to consult your pharmacist or physician for more information on fears and phobias. If you think a fear affects you to the point that it has an adverse impact on your quality of life, it is important to consult a healthcare professional that can guide you on the best way to overcome it.