7 Psychological Reasons People Have Certain Phobias

October 24, 2019 • Shannon Flynn


Your heart is pounding, your palms are sweating and you can’t stop shaking — this is fear. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 of dogs. The child assumes they’re in danger in the presence of any dog and avoids them all.

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

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.

sources influence the human mind more than you might think. If the media shows
people they should fear 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

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 fear
dangerous animals, although these fears are extreme in some individuals.

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.

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

6. Brain Injuries

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

with traumatic brain injuries develop a phobic disorder.

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.

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 of 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.

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

reading this post, you probably have a better idea of how 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.