Expressing Fear and Phobias: English Idioms

Spiders, snakes, small spaces, and storms. What do these things have in common? Ask your students this question. If they say that these words all start with “s,” ask them to guess again! These “s” words are all things people are scared of! Other common phobias include the fear of germs, dogs, needles, and flight.

This week in the Spotlight, we are featuring our Discovery Center lesson plan on Spiders. After you try the lesson plan, get your students talking about their own fears and phobias. Your students will have fun learning NEW English idioms and sayings that are related to fear.

Expressing Fear in English

First, help your students understand how to express fears in basic English. Teach the following adjectives and explain that they all have similar meanings.


Here are some more synonyms that express a slightly stronger feeling of fear:


Next teach how to use these words in a sentence to express fear:

be + scared of / afraid of / frightened of + plural noun or -ing clause

Ella is afraid of mice.
My mom is terrified of heights.
Dad is petrified of snakes.
I am scared of flying.
Ricardo is afraid of sleeping in the dark.

be + frightened by / scared by

When speaking about a past situation that made us scared, rather than a fear or phobia in general, we sometimes use frightened / scared + by  (not “of”):

I was frightened by the wind.
I was scared by the dog’s bark.
I was horrified by the sound of her voice.

Note: We do not use “afraid + by.”

Common Error

Point out the common error that students make when using the words “scared” and “scary.” You can use the example of a scary movie.

I was scary. X

It was scary. (the movie) ✓
I was scared. (my feeling) ✓

Idioms and Sayings Related to Fear

When your students are ready, introduce them to some idioms and sayings related to fear.

to give one butterflies
to give one goosebumps
to give one the heebie-jeebies

to make one break out in a cold sweat
to make one’s blood run cold

to be on pins and needles
to be scared to death
to be scared out of one’s wits
to be scared stiff

to get/give the jitters
to shake like a leaf
to send chills down one’s spine
to turn white as a ghost
to scare the daylights out of someone
to freak one out

Print our Find Someone Who is Afraid Class Survey. In the column marked “Fear” your low-level students can write the noun (e.g., mice) or -ing form (e.g., flying). Your higher-level learners can write a summarizing sentence (e.g., Max is petrified of bats.).

Encourage higher-level learners to turn the statements into questions as they survey their classmates:

Do bats scare the daylights out of you?
Do spiders give you the heebie-jeebies?

After your students do the class survey, invite them to summarize their findings orally:

Anne is scared of heights.
Julio is terrified of bats.
Liz is petrified of lightning.
Mice give Tara the heebie-jeebies.

What are you afraid of? Share your fears and phobias in the comments below. Personally, I’m afraid of mice, rats, and bats!

Tara Benwell

Tara Benwell is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in materials and articles for the ELT industry. She is the media director and head writer for ESL-Library, and a contributor to its sister site Sprout English. Tara is the author of an iPad storybook series for kids called Happy Campers Books. Her debut novel, The Proper Order of Things is available on Amazon and in the iBookstore.

One Response to “Expressing Fear and Phobias: English Idioms”

  1. Tara Benwell

    Speaking of phobias, here’s a joke my son told me today. Your English learners might like it.

    What do snakes do after a fight?
    They hiss and make up.


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