Phobia vs Another Mental Health or Anxiety Disorder

How to Distinguish a Phobia From a Related Anxiety Disorder

Many mental health disorders show similar symptoms. However, there are important differences that mental health professionals look for in order to provide an accurate diagnosis. Provided here is a brief look at the differences between phobias and other mental health or anxiety disorders.

Psychotic Disorders

Some of the psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia and delusional disorder, can cause fears that resemble phobias or another anxiety disorder in many ways.

However, those with psychotic disorders typically believe that their fears are well-founded and based in reality.

Adults with phobias or another anxiety disorder recognize that their fears are irrational. They understand that the feared object or situation is basically harmless and that their fears are out of proportion to the genuine level of risk.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

It is common for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder to avoid a specific object or situation, which is also common for people with phobias. However, obsessive-compulsive disorder, unlike a phobia or other anxiety disorder, is marked by consistent worrying and dwelling on the fear, even when far removed from the feared situation. Sufferers develop elaborate rituals, known as compulsions, that they feel they must complete in order to minimize anxiety.

People with a phobia or other anxiety disorder, on the other hand, typically do not think much about the feared object or situation unless exposed to it in some way.

They may dwell on an upcoming event, such as giving a speech, that is related to the phobia, but do not experience persistent fear in daily life.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

While phobias are focused on a specific object or situation, generalized anxiety disorder is much more broadly based. Those with generalized anxiety disorder worry excessively over a variety of day to day situations.

They may have difficulty performing tasks due to their anxiety disorder, but do not go out of their way to avoid specific situations or objects.


It is easy to mistake depression for agoraphobia or social phobia. Many people with depression turn inward, preferring to stay at home alone rather than spend time with friends.

People with depression, however, do not actually fear a specific situation. If coerced into participating, they may or may not enjoy the situation, but they will not show a phobic response. They are simply uninterested in participating.

Bipolar Disorder

Anxiety is a common symptom of bipolar disorder, particularly during manic episodes. However, this rarely manifests as a fear of something specific. Bipolar disorder is a complex condition with numerous specific symptoms that are not present in those with a phobia or other anxiety disorder.

Eating Disorders

It is possible to have a specific phobia of one or more food items. This phobia is known as cibophobia, or fear of food.

Additionally, some people with social phobia fear eating in front of other people. These phobias can cause symptoms that resemble an eating disorder. Finally, those with generalized anxiety disorder may feel particularly anxious around other people, leading to a loss of appetite.

Eating disorders, however, are not caused by a fear of food or a fear of eating in public. Typically, someone with an eating disorder has a distorted view of his or her own body weight and shape. It is this distorted view of the self that leads to the eating disorder.

Diagnosing an anxiety disorder or other mental disorder is largely subjective, requiring clinical judgment skills. Many mental disorders have similar symptoms, and multiple disorders may be present in the same person. Therefore, it is very important to see a qualified mental health professional to receive accurate diagnosis and treatment.


American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Current and New Approaches to Social Phobia. Medscape Psychiatry & Mental Health eJournal. February 19, 2008.

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