Causes of phobias: Where do phobias come from?

Everyone has things that frighten them. However, there are some people who have strong, irrational, and involuntary reactions to everyday things and places, which are called phobias. There have been several studies examining the causes of phobias, but there is still no real consensus as to why some people have this kind of reaction to certain stimuli. Phobias are probably more common than you might think: according to the National Institutes of Mental Health and the American Psychiatric Association, about 7 to 9 percent of adults in the US suffer from a specific phobia. Twenty-one percent of those adults suffer from severe phobias, which translates to about two percent of the entire population. Most phobias can be linked to a specific event or situation in the formative years of childhood, but it’s not always clear what causes these phobias.

What are the causes of phobias for so many people?

What is a Phobia?

A fear and a phobia are not the same. Some fear is good, and necessary for survival. However, a phobia is actually considered to be a type of anxiety disorder, and there are three types: specific phobias, agoraphobia, and what was previously called social phobia is now called social anxiety disorder. A specific phobia is an excessive and persistent fear of a specific object, situation or activity that is usually not harmful. There are common categories of specific phobias:

  • Situations – school, flying, enclosed spaces
  • Animals or insects – dogs, snakes, or spiders
  • Nature – lightning, thunderstorms, heights
  • Mutilation – injections, blood
  • Others – clowns, vomiting, ghosts

Agoraphobia is the fear of being in situations where you cannot escape, embarrassing situations, or situations where help is not available in the event panic attack. This may result in physical reactions, such as refusing to leave the house. Social anxiety disorder, previously called social phobia, causes a person to have significant anxiety and discomfort about being embarrassed, rejected, or looked down upon in social interactions and settings. This includes public speaking, large festivals, and concerts, or meeting new people.

Causes of Phobias

But what are the causes of phobias? The answer to this question is still not totally understood. Simple phobias, another term for specific phobias, usually begin at least by age 10, and are linked to a negative childhood experience. However, it’s also thought that phobias are learned behaviors.  

Many causes of phobias begin in childhood.
Many causes of phobias begin in childhood

Causes of phobias: Environment

 It is thought that phobias may be learned behaviors, behaviors that are inadvertently picked up throughout childhood. This may come from when a child sees a parent or someone they trust has a phobia and start to have the same irrational fear. Example: Dad has a phobia of dogs, so the child grows to have the same phobia.

Example: a mother who is afraid of spiders or dogs is likely to teach her child to also be afraid of spiders or dogs. Having parental figures with anxiety troubles may affect how you deal with fear and anxiety in your own life.

Causes of phobias: Experience

A negative (or repeated negative) experience(s) have led a person to a phobia.

Example: someone may develop a phobia of public speaking after having multiple negative experiences, or one very negative experience when speaking publicly.

Causes of phobias: Genetics

It’s possible that phobias are genetic.

Example:  A study involving separated twins shows that both individuals had the same phobia, despite having been raised by different families in different places.

Also, there is evidence for genetic determinants to phobias, for example, females suffer from phobias about twice as often than men.

Causes of phobias: Evolution

 This theory of the causes of phobias comes from the biological idea of self-preservation.

Example: Being stuck in large bodies of water, or coming in contact with a poisonous snake may mean death, so the body conditioned itself to have an innate phobia to certain stimuli.

Causes of phobias: Combination

It is thought that it is not one, but rather an combination of the previous factors that cause a phobia.

Example: The more complex phobias, agoraphobia and social anxiety disorder, are exactly that: more complex. It is mostly thought to be a combination of genetics, negative life experiences, and brain chemistry that all contribute the development of phobias.

Most Common Phobias

Neurology of Phobias

Even though scientists have been able to map out fear in the brain, like many things about the brain, the biological basis is still ambiguous. Fear and phobias are based in a few areas of the brain: the prefrontal cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and the amygdala. These areas store and recall memories of dangerous or embarrassing events, and use them to evaluate any similar events that may occur. If the brain decides that the event is happening again, it causes the body to react in the same way, which may be an overreaction to the present situation. In MRI studies, researchers have distinguished the amygdala, often called the fear center of the brain, as the main reactor to a phobia stimulus, and is the main director of the body’s fight or flight response. It is thought that the synaptic connections in the amygdala controls the memory of fear conditioning. Studies have found that dysfunctions in the amygdala and the related brain areas can cause phobias and other anxiety disorders.

Risk Factors

Generally, there are the several risk factors that may cause phobias to develop:

  • Age – specific phobias usually begin in childhood, before age 10.
  • Relatives – either through genetics or learned behaviors, families tend to share phobias.
  • Temperament – people who are more sensitive, negative, or inhibited are at risk for developing phobias.
  • Negative experiences – traumatic events are usually found to be the cause of most specific phobias.
  • Negative experiences in the news – learning about others’ traumatic experiences can cause the same fear of experiencing it yourself.

Treatment of Phobias

For people with simple phobias with no severe symptoms, just avoiding their fear may be enough treatment. However, many phobias can be cured with the appropriate intervention and therapy. While no single treatment works for everyone, the most common treatment for phobias is exposure therapy. Exposure therapy focuses on changing the response to the feared object or situation. Gradual, repeated exposure to the source of fear, and dealing with the associated feelings manages and decreases the fear and anxiety. Treatment could also be cognitive behavioral therapy, which combines exposure and ways to view the fear differently. This involves learning alternative views about the fears, and learning how to control your thoughts and feelings toward certain stimuli.

It is also possible to treat phobias with medications, including beta blockers, sedatives, and antidepressants. Beta-blockers stop the effects of adrenaline, which causes the increased heart rate, sweating, and shaking that accompanies anxiety and fear. Sedatives, or benzodiazepines, also reduce anxiety symptoms, but it’s possible to become dependent on them, and they should not be prescribed to those with a history of alcohol or drug abuse. Antidepressants elevate the levels of serotonin in the brain, resulting in better moods in those with phobias.

Are antidepressants for you?

If a phobia is causing a disruption in everyday functioning, it should be taken seriously, and it is important to seek proper treatment, especially since it is so easily treatable.

Do you have any questions? Leave me a comment below! 🙂


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American Psychiatric Association
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)

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