What Causes Phobias?

Ever had to turn down a promotion because it would mean frequent flying –something that you’ve always dreaded? Or ever refused a simple tetanus shot because you are terrified of needles? Many people are incapacitated by a fear of things that the rest of us don’t give a second thought to. A phobia is an irrational and overwhelming fear of a situation, object, place, animal, or feeling. Phobias are more extreme than fears and facing the trigger can cause trembling, panic, an accelerated heartbeat, and breathlessness.1 A phobia can also be socially debilitating, especially when people try to plan their life around avoiding the thing that they fear.

Phobias are anxiety disorders and they are mainly of two kinds: simple or specific phobias, and complex phobias.2 Simple or specific phobias are focused on a specific object (blood, vomit, or clowns), situation (going to the dentist, being trapped in a closet), animal (snakes, rats, or spiders), or activity (getting on an escalator). Complex phobias

are associated with a deep-seated anxiety about a certain circumstance and are usually more incapacitating than simple phobias. According to the National Health Service, the two most frequently seen complex phobias are:

Agoraphobia: Although often considered the fear of open spaces, agoraphobia is a much more complex reaction. This is the fear of a place from which you feel you can’t escape. People who are prone to panic attacks often develop agoraphobia. And after a panic attack, the person may start associating the place where it happened with the panic attack – setting a vicious cycle in motion. Someone with agoraphobia may find being in a crowded place like a shopping mall or even traveling on a bus stressful. In some cases, the anxiety becomes so severe that they may be reluctant to leave the house.

Social phobia: People with social phobia are anxious about social situations as they fear they might embarrass or disgrace themselves in public. In extreme cases, a person may avoid commonplace activities like meeting people or eating out.

What Causes Phobias?

Most phobias begin in childhood. While there

are no clear-cut explanations for why a person has a certain phobia, some factors may play a role in triggering it.

  • You’ve Had A Bad Experience: Some simple phobias can be traced to a negative experience that you’ve had as a child. For instance, if you were trapped in a closet or trunk as a child you may develop claustrophobia (the fear of confined spaces) when you grow older.3
  • You’re Watching And Learning: We may also learn to fear something from an early age by observing others. For instance, if your mother has a fear of heights you may develop the same phobia yourself.4
  • It’s Evolutionary: There is a theory that human beings have evolved over the ages to fear certain things and that our phobias reflect this. Interestingly, we are more likely to have phobias surrounding things that were a threat to our ancestors like open spaces, heights, or animals rather than guns or motorcycles
    which would be bigger threats today.5
  • It’s Genetic: Genetics may have a part to play in the development of phobias. Studies among twins have shown that common traits related to phobias are a result of shared genetic material rather than shared environments.6
  • It’s Cultural: Though fear or anxiety associated with social situations can be found in almost every culture, certain phobias may arise due to specific cultural factors. For instance, Taijin Kyofusho, a phobia found mainly in Japan, is a fear of offending or embarrassing others through inappropriate facial expressions, some physical deformity, or offensive smell. In contrast, people in the US would be more likely to suffer from social phobias and a fear that they will embarrass themselves.7

How To Deal With Phobias

Psychotherapy and counseling, where you talk to trained professionals about your problems, are considered effective. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which aims to change your thought process and behavior, can also help you tackle a phobia. In particular, a kind of CBT where exposure to a phobia is gradually increased is used to treat simple phobias. This is known as desensitization therapy.

Lifestyle changes like getting enough exercise, eating healthy, getting proper sleep, and avoiding stimulants like coffee may help alleviate the symptoms of phobia. You might also find meditation, deep breathing, and mindfulness, which helps you to focus on the present and become aware of your thoughts and feelings, to be useful.8