Do you know the differences between phobia and psychological trauma? These are two very different psychopathological pictures, although both share the fact that the person suffering from them feels a lot of discomfort.

In this article we will explain what they are and we will know 4 differences between a phobia and a psychological trauma, equating the psychological trauma to what we know in psychology as PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Differences between phobia and psychological trauma

To understand the differences between phobia and psychological trauma, let’s first explain what each disorder is.

1. Phobias

A phobia is a disproportionate, irrational and exaggerated fear of a particular stimulus or situation . The fear is accompanied by avoidance behaviours of the phobic stimulus (or if the phobic stimulus is tolerated, it is done with high anxiety).

You can have a phobia about anything, that’s why there are as many phobias as there are stimuli or objects. For example, phobia of spiders, public speaking, driving, being in closed spaces, clowns, etc.

Phobias are included in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) as anxiety disorders.

2. Psychological trauma

Psychological traumas, on the other hand, involve the experience, exposure or observation of extremely shocking events , which cause a series of dysfunctional and maladaptive symptoms on a physiological, behavioural and psychological level. These events usually involve death, serious injury or rape.

In relation to psychological trauma, there are a number of mental disorders related to trauma: the best known and most frequently occurring is PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Thus, the term "psychological trauma", in everyday language, is generally used to speak of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder); that is why in this article we will use the concept of PTSD to refer to the term psychological trauma.

In other words, we will use both concepts as equals/interchangeable, although we must take into account that there may be small variations in relation to their meaning in common language (for example, someone may speak of a psychological trauma to refer to an Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) instead of PTSD; ASD is like PTSD but of shorter duration).

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

As we have seen, the term psychological trauma is often used in everyday language as a synonym for PTSD. But do we really know what PTSD is?

According to the DSM-5, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) involves exposure to the occurrence of death, serious injury, or rape ; exposure may be direct, by observation, by knowledge of the event to a family member or friend, or by repeated exposure to details of the event.

This exposure causes a series of characteristic symptoms, which are basically 3: intrusion, avoidance, cognitive and mood disorders and hyperactivity (reactivity).

The first symptom, intrusion, is remarkable, and usually involves re-experimentation of the event through distressing memories or dreams, as well as dissociative reactions, significant psychological distress and intense physiological reactions.

An important change in DSM-5 is that eliminates the necessary criterion of responding with intense fear, helplessness or horror to such an event that did appear in DSM-IV; now this response is not necessary, although it can logically continue to appear in PTSD.


Regarding the differences between phobia and psychological trauma, let’s talk about the 4 most important ones:

1. Type of disorder

The first difference we find is their location (or classification) in reference manuals in psychology, such as the DSM-5.

Thus, while phobia is classified as an “anxiety disorder” in the manual, PTSD is classified as a “trauma or stress related disorder” .

2. Triggering Stimulus

On the other hand, the stimuli (or events) that trigger PTSD or psychological trauma are events related to death (e.g., murder, suicide, or traffic accident), sexual violence (e.g., rape), and serious injury (e.g., spinal cord injury).

In contrast, the stimuli that generate a phobia are “normal” stimuli , in the sense that they do not have to cause real harm (although in some cases they can). In other words, they are generally stimuli (for example, a storm) or everyday situations (for example, driving, speaking in public…).

3. Determinants of the disorder

Another of the differences between phobia and psychological trauma is the fundamental element that determines the appearance or not of the disorder . To make it clearer, in the case of phobia, it is the individual’s response to such stimulus (which is disproportionate and irrational) that determines whether a phobia is diagnosed as such.

In contrast, in psychological trauma, the DSM-IV considered two elements necessary to diagnose PTSD: on the one hand, an intense response of horror, fear or helplessness to the event on the part of the individual, and on the other, the exposure itself to the event (and that it was stressful). The DSM-5, for its part, has modified this criterion and considers that only exposure to the event is necessary, and not the response (although it may still appear).

4. Duration of the disorder

According to the DSM, the duration of a phobia is a minimum of 6 months; while that of a PTSD (or psychological trauma) has to be a minimum of 1 month.

Here we must point out that an ASD or Acute Stress Disorder (also considered a psychological trauma) can appear, and that this lasts from three days to a month (by the time it lasts longer, it already becomes PTSD).

Bibliographic references:

  • APA (2014). DSM-5. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Madrid. Panamericana.
  • Belloch, A.; Sandín, B. and Ramos, F. (2010). Manual of Psychopathology. Volume II. Madrid: McGraw-Hill.
  • Bados, A. (2015). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Faculty of Psychology Department of Personality, Assessment and Psychological Treatment.