Phobias that are specific to a particular stimulus can have a variety of different causes, which fall into three main categories—namely, learned fear, psychological influences, and biological influences. The following article will detail the specifics of these three types of causes, and offer tips as to how to prevent phobias from developing.
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Potential Causes of Phobias
Not all phobias are going to have a clear cause. While they may be due to some trauma, they may also be more of a personality issue for those that already have anxiety. Make sure you take my anxiety test to learn more. Phobia causes could be as follows:
Phobias might be a "learned fear," which means that it is something that you picked up on over time. Learned fears have three main subtypes. The subtypes of learned fear include:
- Directly Learned Fear Directly learned fear occurs when someone experiences a personal encounter with a particular stimulus that results in pain or intense fear, often early on in life. For example, if someone accidentally knocks down a bees’ nest as a child and gets stung, they may develop a phobia of bees.
- Observationally Learned Fear Observationally learned fear involves learning to fear a particular stimulus based on the behavior or attitude of others towards the stimulus. For example, if a child’s parent is intensely afraid of spiders, the child is more likely to develop a fear of spiders themselves.
- Indirectly/Informationally Learned Fear Indirectly learned fear or informationally learned fear, is the result of becoming informed of the potentially dangerous nature of certain stimuli through media or hearsay. For example, a person might learn to fear driving due to constantly hearing about car crashes on the radio, or seeing pictures of them on television.
It is important to note that some people have frightening or negative experiences, live with phobic people and learn about dangerous aspects of the world without developing phobias. The likelihood of a phobia developing after these “learning” experiences occur often depends on how frequently they are exposed to the stimulus, and whether or not they immediately begin avoiding the stimulus. If exposure is prolonged, or if the person can revisit the stimulus soon after their first fear-inducing exposure without incident, they become less likely to develop a phobia relating to it later in life.
How a person thinks about the object of their fear can have the effect of causing it to transform into a phobia, or intensify the severity of an already existing phobia. The types of psychological perception that can lead to and worsen phobias are outlined below.
- Heightened Awareness A phobic person will often be more keenly aware of the presence or potential for the presence of the object of their fear than other people. The constant awareness of potentially threatening stimuli causes a person to build up feelings of dread and fear related to the object of their fear, making it even more frightening when they see or experience it.
- Perception Distortion The object of a phobic person’s fear may seem to the person to be disproportionately threatening, having exaggerated frightening features not apparent to other people. For example, someone afraid of dogs might see dogs as monstrous, fanged creatures, or remember the dog they were once bitten by as such, even if in reality it was fairly small and harmless-looking. The exaggerations that fear creates in the mind begin to seem real over time, increasing the individual’s drive to avoid the object of their fear and their negative feelings towards it.
- Negative Core Beliefs The beliefs a phobic person cultivates regarding the object of their fear usually serve to make the object or situation more frightening than it would otherwise be. For example, someone afraid of planes might cultivate the belief that planes should not be able to fly, being too heavy in reality to remain airborne, or that the air on a plane may become less breathable when a plane ascends high up into the sky.
- Obsessive Avoidance Phobic persons are likely to obsessively avoid the object of their fears by whatever means necessary. Carefully avoiding contact with the fear object usually has the effect of increasing the strength of the above psychological influences. It's a phenomenon known as negative reinforcement. Refusing to re-expose oneself to the object results in a failure to learn that the object is not always a cause for alarm. It is said that people fear most what they don’t understand, and spending time with the object of fear is a crucial step towards understanding and accepting it as safe.
Constant awareness of the perceived threat, a belief that the object of their fear is “scarier” or more threatening than it is in reality, and a refusal to go near the fear object all contribute to maintaining learned fears and keeping a person from re-learning.
The primary biological factor thought to be related to a predisposition towards phobic attitudes and behavior is a hormonal imbalance in the brain involving insufficient levels of the hormone serotonin.
Serotonin deficiency is a common feature of many anxiety disorders, and people with naturally low serotonin levels have been shown to be more susceptible to anxiety. Women, for example, generally have lower levels of serotonin in their bodies than men, and are up to 40% more likely than men to develop mental illnesses such as anxiety disorders.
Evolutionary psychologists theorize that, because phobias most often develop during childhood, people are genetically predisposed to develop phobic behaviors as children as a survival mechanism, helping them to avoid potentially dangerous stimuli and increase the likelihood of their reaching adulthood.
How to Prevent Phobias
No matter what caused your phobia, it's possible to learn to control that fear. Ideally, you do this by exposing yourself to the fearful stimulus, until your mind realizes that the fear was unwarranted. You can do this by starting small:
- First think about the object you fear until you stop fearing it.
- Then look at pictures.
- Then look at videos.
- Then try to be in the same room as the object.
Do each task for hours on end as long as it takes until the fear starts to disappear before moving on to the next one. This type of process has the potential to drastically change how much fear you experience, allowing you to make the object a known entity and take away the mystery that leads to more fear.
Make sure you also take my free 7-minute anxiety test now. This test is a great way to learn more about yourself and your phobias, and start fighting those fears today.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Nov 23, 2017.