Understanding Phobias and Their Possible Causes

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Have you ever wondered what causes phobias? Researchers have offered several theories about the factors that may increase the likelihood that a phobia will develop.

What Is a Phobia?

A phobia is an overwhelming and unreasonable fear of an object or situation that poses little real danger but provokes anxiety and avoidance.

Unlike the brief anxiety most people feel when they give a speech or take a test, a phobia is long-lasting, causes intense physical and psychological reactions, and can affect your ability to function normally at work or in social settings.

Several types of phobias exist. Some people fear large, open spaces. Others are unable to tolerate certain social situations. And still, others have a specific phobia, such as a fear of snakes, elevators or flying.

Not all phobias need treatment. But if a phobia affects your daily life, several therapies are available that can help you overcome your fears—often permanently.

Phobias are divided into three main categories:

  • Specific phobias: A specific phobia involves an irrational, persistent fear of a specific object or situation that's out of proportion to the actual risk. This includes a fear of situations (such as airplanes or enclosed spaces); nature (such as thunderstorms or heights); animals or insects (such as dogs or spiders); blood, injection or injury (such as knives or medical procedures); or other phobias (such as loud noises or clowns). There are many other types of specific phobias. It's not unusual to experience phobias about more than one object or situation.
  • Social anxiety disorder: More than just shyness, social anxiety disorder (formerly known as social phobia) involves a combination of excessive self-consciousness and a fear of public scrutiny or humiliation in common social situations. In social situations, the person fears being rejected or negatively evaluated or fears offending others.
  • Fear of open spaces (agoraphobia): This is a fear of an actual or anticipated situation, such as using public transportation, being in open or enclosed spaces, standing in line or being in a crowd, or being outside the home alone. The anxiety is caused by fearing no easy means of escape or help if intense anxiety develops. Most people who have agoraphobia develop it after having one or more panic attacks, causing them to fear another attack and avoid the place where it occurred. For some people, agoraphobia may be so severe that they're unable to leave home.

What Causes Phobias?

Factors that may increase the likelihood that a phobia will develop include:

  • Genetics: Research has shown that certain phobias may run in families. For example, twins who are raised separately, in different locations, may develop the same phobias. However, many people with phobias have no relatives with the condition.
  • Cultural Factors: Some phobias occur only in certain cultural groups. An example is taijin kyofusho, a social phobia that appears almost exclusively in Japan. This is a fear of offending or harming others in social situations. It is markedly different from a traditional social anxiety disorder in which the sufferer is afraid of being personally embarrassed or humiliated. It is, therefore, possible that culture plays some role in phobia development.
  • Behavioral and Environmental Factors: Many phobias are based on real-life events that may or may not be consciously remembered. A phobia of dogs, for example, may stem from being attacked as a small child. Social anxiety disorder may develop from teenage awkwardness or childhood bullying. It is likely that a combination of these factors must be in place for a phobia to develop. However, more research is necessary before a definitive conclusion can be reached.
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  1. Van houtem CM, Laine ML, Boomsma DI, Ligthart L, Van wijk AJ, De jongh A. A review and meta-analysis of the heritability of specific phobia subtypes and corresponding fears. J Anxiety Disord. 2013;27(4):379-88. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2013.04.007

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