What's the Difference Between Fear and Phobia? One Is a Help While the Other Is a Hindrance

Happy Halloween, a day to reflect on all things scary. Cheap scares and tricks can be fun, but for people with phobias, they can be anything but a good time. It’s sometimes difficult to know where to draw the fine line between fear and phobia, but they are distinct: one can help ensure your safety while the other can seriously impede your daily life.

Fear is an evolutionary instinct that helps keep us alive. Think about all the things we naturally fear: snakes, spiders, the sick and the dead. Along the course of our evolutionary history, those ancestors with the genetic predisposition to avoid these dangers were more likely to live long enough to pass on these life-saving genes. Even in modern society, where lions and saber tooth tigers are no longer a pressing danger, our fear instinct helps us survive.

Think of our natural inclination to avoid getting into a car with a drunk driver, or our fear of walking down a dark alley as opposed to the well-lit street, and then thank your constantly on-edge ancestors. 

Related: We are born with a fear of spiders and snakes because they killed our fearless ancestors

10_31_face Halloween is a time to indulge in all that causes fear. NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images

As for where fear comes from, it quite literally is all in your head. The emotion that keeps us awake at night is caused by chemical reactions in our brains that act as catalysts to a number of physical traits, such as increased heart rate, sweaty palms and a sudden increase in physical strength—the flight or fight defense.

New research from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York has helped to pinpoint where in the brain, more precisely, fear starts—the amygdala, known for its association with emotion. According to the recent study now published online in Nature Neuroscience, fears form at first in the central amygdala. Here, a protein expression in response to a dangerous or uncomfortable situation is relayed to the lateral amygdala. Once in the lateral amygdala, the memory is consolidated and formed into a long-lasting fear.

Related: Discovery of where fear begins in the brain could improve treatments for anxiety and phobias

Phobias, on the other hand, have no evolutionary purpose and are actually more of a hindrance than a help. In fact, phobias are listed as a mental health illness classified under general anxiety disorders. Individuals with phobias will go well out of their way to avoid the object of their fear, and when confronted with it they will experience serious emotional and physical stress. Some may even experience a panic attack. Fears keep us safe from harm, but phobias can interfere with an individual's ability to lead a normal life and think rationally. In addition, unlike fear, which is often innate, phobias are usually triggered by a specific traumatic event in childhood or early adolescence.

Fear continues to be an important area of research for scientists, as deeper understanding of this strong, omnipresent emotion may help them develop better treatments for those with phobias and other fear-related conditions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. As for the rest of us, a little bit of fear is healthy and normal, and if you’re going to indulge in the dark side of your mind, when better to do it than All Hallow’s Eve?