The Differences Between Phobia and Panic Disorder

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Many people confuse panic disorder and phobias, believing that these two conditions are the same. It is undeniable that panic disorder and phobias share similar symptoms, including intense fear, feelings of anxiety, and panic attacks. Both conditions can involve difficult symptoms that can tremendously impact one’s relationships, career, and other responsibilities and goals.

Additionally, according to information found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5), both conditions are classified as “anxiety disorders.” But panic disorder and phobias are considered separate conditions, each with a distinct set of diagnostic criteria.

What Is a Phobia?

A phobia is defined as a relentless fear of a certain object or situation. The fear associated with a phobia goes beyond just feelings of dislike or discomfort. A person with a phobia is severely afraid of the object or situation, far beyond any threat of danger it presents.

For example, many people have an aversion to spiders, but a person who has a fear of spiders (arachnophobia), will go to great lengths to steer clear of spiders and may even behave in ways that others perceive as unreasonable if they encounter one.

Phobia sufferers may recognize that their fear is excessive and irrational, but often feel unable to control their apprehension. Avoidance behaviors are common, as the phobic is determined to stay away from her specific fear. If forced to face the feared object or situation, the person will experience marked distress and anxiety. Common symptoms of phobias include accelerated heart rate, shaking, feelings of terror, and a tremendous need to get away from the object or situation.

Categories of Phobias

As outlined in the DSM, phobias fall into one of three main categories:

  • Specific phobias
  • Social phobias (social anxiety disorder)
  • Agoraphobia

Specific Phobias

Specific phobias involve a fear of a particular object or situation. Common specific phobias include a fear of particular situations (e.g., heights, flying, elevators), medical circumstances (e.g., blood, needles, dentists), nature/environmental influences (e.g., water, tornadoes, earthquakes), or animals (e.g., snakes, dogs, bees).

Social Phobias

Social phobias entail an excessive fear of being embarrassed or negatively evaluated in a social situation. A person with a social phobia will avoid doing activities in public, such as speaking, in which they would at risk of being judged by others.


Agoraphobia may similarly involve a fear of being embarrassed, however, the person is afraid of having a panic attack in a place or situation in which it would be embarrassing and/or difficult to flee from. The symptoms of agoraphobia typically lead to further limitations in one's life such as avoiding driving, crowds, or large open spaces.

Panic Disorder and Specific Phobias

Panic attacks and panic-like symptoms, such as trembling, shortness of breath, and excessive sweating, are typical symptoms of both panic disorder and phobias. However, these symptoms are triggered differently for each condition. People who have a phobia will experience panic and anxiety when thinking about or being exposed to their fear.

Panic disorder sufferers, on the other hand, are not generally triggered by a specific fear. People with panic disorder experience panic attacks suddenly and unexpectedly. People with panic disorder often must cope with a fear of when their next panic attack will strike. It is also possible to have a co-occurring diagnosis of both a specific phobia and panic disorder.

Panic Disorder
  • Heart palpitations or accelerated heart rate

  • Excessive sweating, trembling or shaking

  • Shortness of breath or smothering sensations

  • Sudden and unexpected recurring panic attacks

  • Fear of when next attack will strike

  • Dizziness, trembling, and increased heart rate

  • Breathlessness

  • A sense of unreality

  • Extreme, irrational fear of situation, living creature, place, or object

  • Panic when thinking about or being exposed to irrational fear

Treatment Options

Both panic disorder and phobias are complex conditions that can only be diagnosed by a qualified mental health provider. If you suspect that you are suffering from either or both of these conditions, make an appointment to discuss your symptoms with your doctor. She will be able to assist you in receiving an accurate diagnosis, treatment, and referrals when necessary.

The treatment options available for phobias are similar to those for panic disorder. Most people diagnosed with a phobia will choose a combination of psychotherapy, medication, and self-help techniques to help in managing their symptoms.

Psychotherapy can assist in a variety of ways including developing coping strategies, although medications are more likely to be a component of lowering the intensity of fear and anxiety, and self-help techniques can be beneficial in managing everyday stress, medication options may help lower the intensity of fear and anxiety, and self-help techniques can be beneficial in managing everyday stress.

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  • American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.).” Washington, DC.

By Katharina Star, PhD
Katharina Star, PhD, is an expert on anxiety and panic disorder. Dr. Star is a professional counselor, and she is trained in creative art therapies and mindfulness.