What’s the difference between being concerned about or disliking something and a full-blown mental illness? The official line is not always crystal clear, though there are some very good professional specifications. The American Psychiatric Association has published extensive materials over a long period of time in an effort to clarify phobia diagnosis, symptoms, causes and treatments for their industry with some success, including a broadly used reference manual, the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).
A true phobia is different from a less severe level of fear not only by degree, but by a few particular distinctions: A phobia is not only an irrational fear, but the sufferer will recognize that their fear is abnormal. Additionally, a phobia will be very persistent, sometimes obsessive, and will interfere with an individual’s normal day-to-day life, including the possibility of physical symptoms and panic attacks. Generally, a diagnosis of phobia requires a long-term issue and in those younger than 18, a legal diagnosis usually requires that the issue persist for more than six months.
By example, being afraid of spiders or snakes to some degree is entirely normal since such animals can bite, can be deadly, and they can be thought of as a primal archetype of ugliness, disease and non-human threat. But a phobic will be obsessively and irrationally afraid of them even when there is no evidence that they are close by. (There might be a [something] under the bed or behind a curtain… and it might be deadly!)
In the absence of professional diagnosis, a test of whether a fear is a true phobia can perhaps best be thought of in terms of the person’s level of obsession, the impact on their life and/or their reaction in the presence of a trigger. If someone refuses to leave their house because they are afraid of (some particular thing that might be out there), the impact on their normal life is clear, but many phobias will not be so easy to spot.
When someone is faced with the focus of their fear, a full-blown panic attack would indicate the fear is likely a fully developed phobia. This is a strong indicator whether the issue is social or not, but (of course) it might not be an easy “test” to perform – nor one we should seek in order to make our own diagnosis. A very clear, strong drive to avoid the thing or situation feared can, over time, be a clear enough marker without the need for direct confrontation.
There are three main types of phobia including social anxiety disorders, specific phobias and agoraphobia. Each broad type has particular properties for diagnosis, symptoms and treatments, though it is common to see an overlap across types.
Additionally, Panic Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder are closely related topics. Social Anxiety Disorder is dealt with as part of social phobias while Panic Disorder is dealt with as part of agoraphobia.
Learn More – Types of Phobias
Social phobias are generally classed as “social anxiety disorders”, also known as “SAD” and naturally consist of fears related to social situations.
Specific phobias are also called “simple” or “isolated” phobias and are non-social in nature. These fears are focused on some exact non-social cause.
Agoraphobia literally forms a class by itself, though some other phobias are closely associated with it. Of note, agoraphobia is not simply the fear of open spaces, but is rather the fear of spaces from which escape is difficult or places in which a panic attack might occur.
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