In this post I explore the differences and similarities between what has been labelled as specific and complex phobias.


What is a Specific Phobia?

A specific phobia is when the sufferer has an exaggerated and debilitating amount of fear over a particular ‘thing’. Common examples are: Spiders, dogs, clowns, cows, small spaces, needles.

And why do people have specific phobias?

Because at some point in their life the person had a significant emotional reaction in response to that ‘thing’, this may even have resulted in trauma. It could have been something that happened to them, or it may have been something they heard about, it may even have come from watching the reactions on somebody else’s face. The development could be instantaneous or slow-growing. The person may have a memory when they developed their phobia, or the origin of their fear may be a mystery to them.

So what is a complex Phobia?

Complex phobias have a secondary level to them because the fear isn’t necessarily linked to a ‘thing’ but to a context and an environment and the interactions that take place within that environment.

Complex phobias commonly fall into the bracket of social fears because a person with a complex phobia will often worry about how they will be perceived by others.

Agoraphobia is an example of a complex phobia because it is the fear of being unable to cope in a public space. A fear of public speaking, or a fear of flying can also be good examples.

A potential aspect of a complex phobia is that it brings up fear and anxiety when the sufferer believes they do not have the capabilities to cope in a particular environment. Worries can stem from imagining scenarios where others will pick up on the persons perceived flaws such as: speech difficulties, bodily concerns (ie sweating, blushing, odour), clumsiness, weakness, ineptitude.

The fear often comes down to the worry that the sufferer will encounter ridicule or a negative social reaction as a result of their actions.  An additional and very powerful fear is the fear of then having a breakdown or panic attack in this situation, this may in fact become a reality.

A complex phobia may also incorporate other more specific phobias. For instance, the fear of being able to cope on a crowded aeroplane may also be exacerbated due to a fear of heights and/or a fear of small spaces.

Often people with a complex phobia will experience panic because it seems as if there is no simple or easy way to escape their fear in that moment because it will either be impractical, embarrassing or damaging for them.

And how do people get a complex phobia?

A complex phobia originates in the same way as a specific phobia. However a complex phobia also involves beliefs about self-identity such as “I’m a clumsy person” or “I always make a fool out of myself” as well as self-capabilities, such as “I will sound stupid when I speak to authority figures” or “I don’t have a way to cope if this situation changes”. These beliefs are often developed during early childhood and then reinforced as life progresses. It is important to note that these beliefs can be changed.

What are the main differences between a specific and complex phobia?

A specific phobia can be thought of as passive as it is a fear of something happening to the sufferer by something outside of themselves (such as a clown or a spider). Whereas a complex phobia is active as it implies that the sufferer is worried with how they will interact with something environmental (such as public speaking).

A specific phobia will have a very obvious trigger such as a particular type of spider that will be scary in almost any context, providing that the spider is within a certain proximity (real or imagined) to the sufferer. A person with a specific phobia will quite easily be able to tell you precisely what scares them and how it scares them. A complex phobia may have a variety of different triggers and in a variety of different environments. A person with a specific phobia may have difficulty explaining all of the triggers, or what specifically scares them, although they will likely be able to remember various episodes they have experienced that share common themes.

In a complex phobia the fear may change if the environment or context changes even in subtle ways. For instance someone with a fear of public speaking may have no problem attracting a large crowd when they tell a funny anecdote in the pub, but they will suddenly struggle when they have to tell an anecdote to a small group of people in a workshop. This is partly to do with what the person believes about their identity and capabilities during that moment ie “I am witty and popular in the pub.” Or “I say stupid things in workshops”

When experiencing a complex phobia part of the fear comes from not having an easy or practical way to escape the situation without the worry of further ridicule. When experiencing a specific fear there is a direct and primary response to the ‘thing’ (lets say a spider) which could include fight, flight or freeze, however escaping the ‘thing’ becomes an obvious priority that is normally easily accomplished by turning away, backing off or running away or hiding.

How are they the same?

Both complex and specific phobias can be experienced simply by imagining them, that is to say that the fear response is created from inside of us. This is a firm reminder that the pain that is created is not by the things themselves but by the power of the imagination.

Is one easier to treat than the other?

Both phobias can disappear quickly just by using talking therapy. Specific phobias can be permanently overcome sometimes as quickly as in a single session. Complex phobias understandably can take more time. The treatment of these phobias will be the subject of a later post.

Further Reading

For more information on Social Fears and some tips for how to combat them. I wrote an article called climbing and social fears

For some further information on how to tackle a specific phobia I have a blog about the fear of spiders

Tom Powell is a coach and talking therapist who uses a range of techniques to help people move past their sticking points and to reach their goals. He specialises in phobias and has helped people with fears of spiders, heights, vertigo, needles, and more. He also works in helping climbers to improve their confidence and mind set.  He lives and works in Bristol and spends his free time going on adventures and enjoying the world.