The Causes Of A Phobia
What are the causes of a phobia? If you’re unusually terrified of small insects or the idea of using a lift or elevator by yourself, then you’re not alone. Phobias are considered to be a very common psychological condition in both men and women. It is estimated that nearly 10 million people in the UK have a phobia of some kind.
A phobia is defined as an extreme or an irrational fear of a situation, object, location or animal. It typically emerges during childhood and persists into adulthood. Experts offer several explanations for the causes of a phobia, and this includes evolutionary theories and behaviourist theories.
A phobia may also range from mild to severe and can be termed simple and complex, but it’s good to know that whatever terms are used, they are treatable. Some phobic sufferers are highly responsive to hypnotherapy and can respond to treatment very quickly, whilst others require a cognitive behavioural approach to alleviate their phobia. Sometimes the combined approach can be the solution to alleviate your panic attack commonly associated with all phobias.
Genetic Causes of a Phobia
Research by the Emory University School of Medicine, in Atlanta has suggested that the causes of a phobia can be hereditary. The study involved mice that were given a mild electric shock after being exposed to the smell of cherry blossoms, making them associate pain to the smell. The offspring of the mice several generations later were also exposed to the same smell. Surprisingly, the new generation of mice also reacted in fear of the smell of the cherry blossoms, even though no amount of electric shock was applied to them. Since the biological and genetic makeup of mice and humans are similar to each other, the research suggests that phobic memories may also be passed down through the genes of your human ancestors.
Genetic causes substantiate the part that “nature” (as opposed to “nurture”) plays in acquiring say, an emetophobia through the inherited experiences of your family line. This is without the influence of any choices that you might make throughout your life to prevent having the emetophobia in the first place and what you might have learnt from your parents.
When you are old enough to understand your emetophobia and appreciate how it affects you, the avoidance and panic reactions are already dominating your lifestyle. But this does not mean that you can’t choose to have treatment for your emetophobia and change its imprint on your biology. Furthermore, with successful treatment of your own emetophobia, you are less likely to pass it on to your future offspring.
The theory posed from the genetic research suggests that what you pass on to your children can be negative (in the case of passing on the emetophobia). By the same argument, what you pass on could also be positive, in terms of transferring to your children a calmer reaction to sickness (vomit) when the emetophobia has been treated and removed.
Environmental causes of a phobia
Genetics alone though is probably not enough for a phobia to develop in every individual; environmental factors play a significant role too in the causes of a phobia. Directly experiencing a traumatic event creates such a strong future association between the event and an intense feeling of fear. Let’s say that you’ve been attacked by an animal like a dog. Even if the event only happened once, it could influence you to have a strong aversion to animals especially dogs (cynophobia) thereafter, no matter how cute an animal might look to others. And the same progression of events can happen if you have been struck by lightning or frightened (traumatised) by the sound of thunder (astraphobia).
Environmental causes of a phobia have a significant impact through life into adulthood particularly when the traumatic events have been experienced as a child. A fearful event in childhood can leave a deeper and immediate imprint in the highly sensitive and developing young brain than a similar traumatic experience caused in adulthood.
Furthermore, some of the childhood initial sensitising events (ISE) can be easily forgotten by adulthood, causing the growing individual to be confused about the nature of their phobia. For example, a child who has been involved in a car accident in the back seat of a two-door car may subsequently assert the desire to be a passenger in the front of the car. With an obliging parent, the child’s claustrophobia remains hidden and may not become apparent until as a teenager, they are “forced” to ride in the back seat of a teenage friend’s two-door car. The situation creates a panic attack for the teenager.
So can phobias be caused in adulthood? It is very unusual for phobias to be caused in middle adulthood. As explained above, it is more likely that the initial sensitising event (ISE) in childhood has been forgotten. Or the “simple phobia” has progressed and developed into a “complex phobia” involving other fears, social anxiety and panic disorder. This situation can emerge in the following example:
- As a child you have a “simple” spider phobia (arachnophobia).
- Whilst standing on a step ladder, you see a spider and your reaction causes you to fall off the step ladder causing a height phobia (acrophobia).
- The fear of heights progresses into claustrophobia when, as a teenager, you experience intense fear when riding on a rollercoaster (in which you feel trapped and also involves heights).
- Since you were unable to vacate the ride once it started, it causes a panic attack and extreme embarrassment in front of your teenage peers (social phobia).
- Then, in adulthood, a series of stressful events raises your general anxiety. Since many of the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety are the same, you feel like you could have a panic attack at any moment and in any location. You are locked in anticipation in fear of having a panic attack and this is enough to trigger your panic attack (panic disorder).
- In order to avoid the social humiliation of having random panic attacks in public places, you stay home to try and cope with your condition. You feel safer being housebound (agoraphobia).
By the time the agoraphobia is dominating your adult life, you have forgotten the early traumatic situations and the avoidance patterns that have contributed to your current desperate “complex” situation.
Indirectly learned causes of a phobia
There are cases when the causes of a phobia are learned from trusted authority figures closely related to the phobic person. For instance, if children see one or both of their parents having an unusual fearful reaction to snakes (ophidiophobia or ophiophobia), they are also likely to imitate the fearful reaction to snakes to keep themselves safe from harm. This trust in “knowing what is safe or harmful” can extend to other people considered as authority figures by a child. It can include respected relatives in the wider family, older siblings, teachers or close friends during teenage hood.
Indirectly learned causes of a phobia can also extend to observation from indirect learning situations. Seeing a live trauma in the television news, reading a convincing story or article, or even watching a recorded documentary can stimulate or reinforce a developing phobia. Even seeing a dramatic film containing convincing fearful reactions to say, an emetophobia can arouse suspicion about the depicted danger of vomit, fear of contamination from another person or the fear of choking on one’s own vomit.
Stress and Phobias
Is long-term stress among the many causes of a phobia? During prolonged periods of stress, it is common to experience anxiety and depression. This generally diminishes your ability to deal with excessive situational demands. It can increase your fear and anxiety of those stressful situations recurring again in the future to near-phobic capacity. Take for example when a mother has a traumatic pregnancy, a traumatic child birth and post-natal health issues for both the developing baby and herself. Depending on the events surrounding these traumas, she could be very fearful of another future birth trauma. Or she may also have lost trust in the medical profession and feel high anxiety when she needs to trust the medical profession again in the future.
In the example above, the constant state of heightened alertness surrounding the stressful birth trauma could be the “cause” of the phobia. Or, depending on the previous trauma history, the stressful events can serve to reinforce previous fearful beliefs created from an earlier health trauma, making the hidden health phobia “conscious” to the mother. Whether as the ISE or reinforcing event, a tokophobia (fear of pregnancy or childbirth) and/or iatrophobia (fear of doctors and the medical profession) is established due to the numerous stressful situations and events.
Psychodynamic Explanations for the causes of a phobia
There are several causes of a phobia, but psychodynamic theorists offer their own explanations for the “cause” of them. They argue that reactions to phobias are the mind’s defence mechanism against repressed feelings of anxiety that have been experienced in childhood. These repressed feelings are considered too painful to consciously deal with and acknowledge later in life, so these feelings are then displaced onto associated situations or objects. The situation or object becomes the phobic stimulus to avoid, thus protecting the individual from having to deal with these painful repressed emotions again.
Or put another way, the situation or object associated with the phobia is not the source of the anxiety; the cause is related more to the product of unresolved conflicts within the various parts of the person’s mind. According to psychodynamic theorists, when the mind’s “conflicts” are centrally treated, the repressed emotions can be safely released, thereby disconnecting the phobia and the associated anxiety.
Causes of a phobia: The impact on your neurology
The combination of these various causes of a phobia (including genetic traits, childhood interactions with your family and your personal direct and indirect life experiences) can ultimately determine how your brain develops and functions when you perceive a threat and cope with your phobia-inducing object or situation.
The part of the brain responsible for controlling fear is called the amygdala. For a phobia sufferer, the right amygdala is considered to be highly sensitised and reactive to phobia-inducing stimuli causing the intense distress (or panic attack) commonly associated with phobic reactions. Where there is long-term trauma, this part of the brain may be generally over-reactive.
Also notable amongst phobia sufferer’s neurology is a higher expectation (anticipatory anxiety) that you will encounter your object or situation of distress. This is termed “expectancy bias” by researchers and is associated with lowered activity of the lateral prefrontal cortex and visual cortex parts of the brain. This under-activity results in an absence of cognitive control to distinguish between “imagined” and “real” threats related to your phobia. Thus with an arachnophobia, you will have a panic attack when you see some black fluff because you are certain that it is a real spider. You are also convinced that, having seen a spider in one location e.g. under the sofa, that it will keep reappearing in that same location, despite that spider being previously removed.
Causes of a phobia in therapy
Ultimately, the goal of a phobia treatment (using self-help or with a therapist) is to be relaxed in your phobic situation/location or relaxed with your phobic object/animal. There are many different ways to achieve this goal. This article has aimed to explore the many causes of a phobia, rather than trying to find ways to treat it. But does knowledge of the causes of a phobia have any practical application in resolving a phobia in therapy? It can be partially helpful, and this would depend on the individual enquiry.
For example, if you are locked into your obsession about knowing why you have a fear of germs (mysophobia), then your obsession can block your access to a treatment solution. Learning that it’s a family trait and not your fault can ease your obsession particularly when you also learn that many of your forgotten childhood experiences involved fearful reactions to germs. With this knowledge, a mysophobic can accept it and “learn to live with it”, even if it does mean being fanatical or compulsive about cleanliness.
Another enquiry might relate to the irrationality and confusion of your complex phobia situation. How can a simple phobia such as a fear of holes (trypophobia) lead to your agoraphobia? Understanding and rationalising how your fears and their reactions have transformed your “simple phobia” into an isolating agoraphobic situation (complex phobia) can be helpful. You can now be realistic about a proposed treatment plan and the time it usually takes to undo complex phobias, rather than hoping for a quick-fix and abandoning therapy prematurely
Some therapy clients have uncontrolled panic attacks (panic disorder), are irresponsive to anxiety control techniques (relaxed breathing) and have forgotten what situation or object is triggering their panic response. By using a psycho-therapeutic approach with hypnosis, it can help you identify the “cause” of your unconscious phobia. Regression hypnotherapy can then be used to create emotional understanding and release the fear contained in those childhood experiences. This is an example of how applying a solution to a client’s past “cause” can benefit a client where a solution-focused approach is struggling to make progress. You could say that it’s still “solution-focused”, but you are regressing back to ISE’s to treat it.
Causes of a phobia: conclusion
Research would indicate that the many causes of a phobia relate to both nature and nurture. Where one cause is evident in a particular phobic person, does this mean that they are more responsive to a certain type of therapy? Perhaps this is another matter for further research.