What Causes Phobias?

Phobias are severe and irrational anxiety disorders, fully developed into true fears. While a strong and seemingly irrational concern, aversion or dislike of something might be noticeable, a true phobia is persistent, often obsessive and definitely powerful enough to directly and physically interfere with normal life. Diagnosis is most often a question of the degree to which symptoms and obsessions are exhibited or suffered.

face of fear
Causes of anxiety attacks and other symptoms

The most common and demonstrable symptom of a phobic reaction is a “panic attack”, including sweating, an inability to speak or think clearly, etc., but a true phobia is not required for a panic attack to occur.

Anxiety attacks are said to be “triggered”, and in the case of phobias this is due to some identifiable situation, place, social situation or thing. “Panic disorder” is distinct from a phobia in that the cause for a panic attack may be completely unidentifiable. (Panic disorder is characterized by repeated panic attacks.)

Learn more about phobia symptoms

How Phobias Develop

Anxiety disorders are closely related to many phobias and social phobias are considered “social anxiety disorders”. Generally, anxiety disorders are thought to develop from three sources: genetic predisposition, anxieties during childhood, or from the process of transitioning to adulthood. More specifically, many phobias can be traced to particular traumatic experiences, often in childhood.

Studies on twins suggest that phobias are at least somewhat inheritable, and a hereditary tendency for anxiety or a heightened fight-or-flight response seems fairly clear. It is also possible for medical issues to play a direct role in the formation of phobias. An abnormally active amygdala (a part of the brain active in the fear response), for instance, has been shown to play a role in anxiety and depression.

A phobia is said to have developed when a person organizes their life around avoiding the object of an irrational fear, which is often a gradual process. During the development of a fear that could be diagnosed as a true phobia, various influences will generally be present in some form or another, but these are not always easy to pinpoint.

hand shadowSocial and specific (or “isolated”) phobias are thought to develop somewhat differently, with the causes for social fears being less well understood. Additionally, phobias related to agoraphobia are categorized on their own, as they often broadly have both social and specific components.

An early life trauma, such as a particularly awful embarrassment, may develop over time as the individual associates that kind of episode with related situations, etc.

A phobia such as the fear of public speaking or a phobic fear of failure may derive from several kinds of socially anxious early life situations, for instance, including student participation in performances, instances of bullying in school, difficulties answering questions in class, or performance issues within peer groups or with friends, etc. The same fear may also be made worse in the presence of more general social anxieties about appearance or by social concerns about medical issues such as a speech impediment or learning disabilities.

Several factors may therefore combine into a more intense fear over time by reinforcing some concern.

The Causes of Specific Phobias

snakeAccording to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), a specific phobia is “an anxiety disorder characterized by an intense, irrational fear cued by the presence or anticipation of a specific object or situation.”

Also called isolated phobias, specific fears more strongly tend to have some identifiable previous trauma (often in childhood and often physically injurious) as a root cause; a fear of bees may stem from an injury in childhood, for instance.

Upbringing can also play a role, such as parental warnings about a direct threat (such as “snakes can bite and kill you”) which is especially notable in cases where a threat is more imminent. (An allergy to bees or peanut butter, for instance, would naturally reinforce a real medical concern.)

It is thought that genetics and hereditary factors may play a role in specific phobias, especially those related to a danger of injury. (A primal “fight or flight” reflex may be more easily triggered in those with a genetic predisposition, for instance.)

In all kinds of phobias, external experiences and / or reports can further reinforce or develop the fear, such as seeing a family member or friend who is affected. In extreme cases, indirect exposures can be as remote as overhearing a reference in conversation or seeing something on the news or on TV and movies.

The Causes of Social Phobias

Social anxiety disorders are often not directly tied to an exact cause and are considered more difficult to attribute to a particular cause in any case.

As noted above, specific traumatic social experiences can easily be thought to underlie the formation of a social anxiety, but such precise experiences are not required for a social anxiety disorder to develop, even in the case of a clearly defined social fear.

Genetic predisposition and medical issues or conditions are again thought to play a role, such as overactive amygdala function or lowered serotonin levels. (Studies have shown lower serotonin levels in those suffering from phobias.)

According to the Mayo Clinic and the cognitive behavioral therapy school of thought, social anxiety disorders can be learned behaviors which develop after witnessing the anxious behavior of others. It is also thought that parental influence is a strong component in the early formation of social phobias.

Psychodynamic theory holds that phobias stem from internal conflict such as low self-esteem.

Learn More About…

Causes of phobias    –    Symptoms of phobias    –    Treatments for phobias


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