The Medical Model in Psychology

Medical Causes and Treatments for Phobias

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Are mental illnesses caused by physical differences in the brain? The medical model of mental illness is rooted in the belief that mental disorders have physical causes. Based on this model, mental illness should be treated—at least in part—as a medical condition, typically through the use of prescription medications.

Medications for mental illness change brain chemistry. In most cases, these medications add or modify a chemical that is responsible for problems with mood, perception, anxiety, or other issues. In the correct dosage, medication can have a profoundly positive impact on functioning. 

The Brain Chemistry of Anxiety Disorders and Phobias

Studies have shown that those who suffer from anxiety disorders, including phobias, have a problem with the regulation of serotonin levels in their brains. Serotonin is a chemical that acts as a neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters modulate the signals between neurons and other cells.

Serotonin acts in the brain and, among other things, moderates mood. A serotonin level that is too high or too low can cause both depression and anxiety. Consequently, phobias are often treated with a class of antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

Normally serotonin is released from a nerve cell into the synaptic gap between cells. It is recognized by the second nerve cell, which then transmits a signal to the brain. The serotonin is then recaptured by the first nerve cell.

An SSRI prevents some of the serotonin from being reabsorbed. It stays in the synaptic gap in order to further stimulate the second nerve cell. SSRIs are not the only medications used in the treatment of phobias but are among the most effective. They must be used with caution, however, particularly in young people, as there can be serious side effects.

How Genetics Maybe Play a Role in Phobias

Researchers have also discovered that genetics may play a role in the development of phobias. Neuropsychology is a branch of psychology that is dedicated to the study of the structure and function of the brain.

Although they have not yet isolated the specific gene that is responsible for phobias, researchers have found certain genetic anomalies in patients that suffer from phobias. Whether or not there is a specific genetic difference in all phobia sufferers is not yet known.

Genetic Predisposition

An increasingly popular theory of mental disorders is based on the concept of triggering events. This model is commonly used to explain schizophrenia, but may also explain the development of phobias.

In this theory, a certain percentage of people have the genetic trait that causes mental illness. However, most people who have that trait do not develop a disorder. The disorder occurs only after a triggering event.

The triggering event is different for each person but is generally a trauma or a time of severe stress. The psychological and emotional reaction to the trauma triggers the mental disorder, but only in people who carry the genetic predisposition.

Although this theory is relatively new and quite controversial, it would help to explain why such major events as combat or natural disasters affect different people in wildly different ways.

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By Lisa Fritscher
Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer and editor with a deep interest in phobias and other mental health topics.