Fear Response: 7 Psychological Reasons for Certain Phobias

October 24, 2019 • Shannon Flynn


Your heart is pounding, your palms are sweating and you can’t stop shaking — this is a fear response. No matter how often you experience it, fear is consistently stressful. Most people don’t have to contend with fear on a regular basis, but others struggle with it daily.

These people suffer from phobias, a term for excessive or irrational fears that hinder normal functioning. Fight-or-flight responses are standard reactions to frightening situations, but the development of a phobia is a “maladaptive response,” where you’re unable to properly adjust to the situation.

As context, three types of phobias exist: social phobia, agoraphobia and specific phobias. Many people are familiar with specific phobias like coulrophobia, or the fear of clowns. These phobias center around certain places, people or things, with some being more widespread while others occur in small populations.

These fear responses stir up tremendous interest as well as judgment, and the general public tends to lack straightforward information on how phobias form. Hopefully, this post will inform you of some of the causes of phobias you might not have considered before.

1. Genetic Disposition

The involvement of genetics in the development of phobias is still a subject of speculation, as scientists have yet to locate any particular gene that causes a fear response. It’s more likely that phobias spring up due to variations in several genes rather than one gene controlling the show.

Some scientists have run experiments on mice to test the probability of fear as an inherited trait. Of course, everyone feels fear, but certain people may feel it concerning specific objects or events because others in their family did as well.

To provide a little perspective, physical changes in the DNA can occur under high levels of stress, and parents pass these affected strands on to their children. From there, the children can create generations of people who share this altered DNA, though it won’t manifest the same way in every individual.

Scientists have also looked into the idea that relatives of individuals with anxiety disorders are at increased risk of developing phobias, even if it doesn’t occur every time. This phenomenon likely has a link to the concept that it’s possible to pass fears through DNA. Some people have a natural predisposition to fear while others are more resilient.

2. Cultural Influence

Some phobias only occur among certain ethnic groups as a result of the cultural climate, and these are often difficult to understand for those outside the culture.

One such phobia is “taijin kyofusho,” which is a phobia of offending others with actions or appearance. This fear manifests among people of Japanese and Korean origin, and it has much to do with the community-based culture of these regions. East Asian countries recognize it as medically legitimate, but Western countries categorize it as a subset of social anxiety disorder.

“Ataque de nervios” is a disorder affecting people of Hispanic descent, with symptoms ranging from uncontrollable screaming to loss of memory. The difference from typical phobias is that this occurs in situations that most people would rightfully fear. It isn’t a response to an irrational trigger. However, “ataque de nervios” presents a reaction that’s much more extreme than most individuals would produce when afraid.

Additionally, people with this condition don’t expect to encounter a similar fear-inducing situation in the future as people with phobias do. When someone has a phobia, the fear can linger over their head like a storm cloud. This isn’t the case for those who experience “ataque de nervios.” The condition appears in women at higher rates than it does for men, though there’s no clear explanation as to why.

3. Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning refers to the learned association between two stimuli that result in the development of a response. Conditioning in the context of phobias occurs when a person experiences a frightening event involving an object or entity, and they start to associate it with an unpleasant experience.

For example, if a dog bites a child, the child will associate the painful bite with the dog and might develop a fear response to dogs. The child assumes they’re in danger in the presence of any dog and avoids them all.

Some phobias, however, are so seemingly random that the sufferers can’t trace them back to a single event in their adolescence. Not every person will respond the same way to an event, either. Some people experience dog attacks as children and go on to love dogs and have pets of their own.

4. Instructional Fear Acquisition

This concept is much like conditioning, only it doesn’t require the individual to ever come into contact with their phobia. When humans receive fear-based information — through books or horror movies, for example — they’ll know to dread that thing without experiencing it firsthand. Some people watch countless zombie movies and end up with a zombie apocalypse phobia, even though these monsters don’t exist. Others gain a fear of sharks from seeing Jaws, though they’ve never been to the beach and don’t live near a body of water.

External sources influence the human mind more than you might think. If the media shows people they should have a fear response about something, many will do just that. Hearing about or seeing an event is enough for some individuals to develop a phobia, especially if the incident was nearby. A child seeing their father trip down a flight of stairs might lead to a phobia of stairwells or heights, even if the fall didn’t happen to them.

5. Biological Preparedness

Scientists characterize phobias as irrational, but some of them seem to make sense at their core, such as a fear of snakes or heights. Biological preparedness is a possible cause in the development of these phobias. The concept states that humans are biologically conditioned to form associations between specific stimuli and responses. In other words, it’s human nature for people to have a fear response to dangerous animals, although these fears are extreme in some individuals.

Researchers theorize that some animal fears are innate and come from ancestors born millions of years ago. A fear of snakes would be a lifesaver in an environment where they’re pervasive. In much the same way, avoiding venomous spiders is an evolutionary advantage even if it means you end up fearing all spiders. The individuals who adapted and developed these defense systems had better chances of surviving and reproducing. Even now, those fears help modern humans survive.

The difference with modern phobias is how they manifest. Human ancestors were afraid of things that could cause them immediate danger, while humans now have individualized phobias resulting from emotional conditioning instead of rationality.

6. Brain Injuries

Traumatic brain injuries can cause a range of neurological complications, including the acquisition of phobias. Social anxiety disorder is the most common phobia that people with brain injuries experience, in addition to other conditions such as PTSD or generalized anxiety disorder. A range of 1% to 10% of patients with traumatic brain injuries develop a phobic disorder.

So far, research shows that social phobias impact brain injury victims more than specific phobias or agoraphobia. People with this fear have intense worries regarding rejection and judgment, and they often isolate themselves to avoid emotional pain.

Penetrating and non-penetrating brain trauma can bring about disorders, especially depending on the region of the brain that sustains damage. Factors like preexisting neurological disorders, age or substance abuse increase a person’s risk of developing phobic disorders or other complications.

7. Panic Attacks

Experiencing a panic attack can lead to agoraphobia, which many believe is a fear response to open spaces. This phobia doesn’t primarily concern a public space but the inability to escape from an area or to receive help in the event of another panic attack.

The emotions from the panic attack imprint themselves in a person’s mind and create a fear response in the area where it happened. To prevent another panic attack, people with agoraphobia will avoid any space where they had a panic attack previously.

About 87% of people with agoraphobia have comorbidity with another anxiety disorder, such as social anxiety or panic disorder. Contrary to popular belief, individuals with this phobia don’t stay bound to their homes. More often than not, they avoid the area where they experienced the initial panic attack.

Fear Is Natural — Except When It’s Not

After reading this post, you probably have a better understanding of the fear response and why phobias occur. Some are relatively harmless and don’t pose a threat to daily life, but others can be debilitating. Thankfully, scientific advancements in therapy and medication enable many people with phobias to live full, enjoyable lives.