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Understanding the common causes of phobias

by Sarah Graham
Thursday 27 November 2014
363 2817

Phobias are specific anxieties relating to particular objects or situations. You can develop a phobia of just about anything, with triggers ranging from beards to feet and from swimming to flying. Some of these phobias, such as arachnophobia (phobia of spiders) or coulrophobia (phobia of clowns), can be fairly easily avoided in most everyday situations, while others are much harder to avoid and may have a far more debilitating impact on your life. We asked four RSCPP therapists to explain what causes phobias to develop.


Fear, often triggered by unpleasant experiences

Phobias can develop as a fear reaction to a thing or situation, such as fear of flying or snakes. They are nothing to feel ashamed of and can be overcome. There are often previous incidents which can trigger this reaction, such as a stressful plane fight or they can be learned responses to things from people whom we are close to. If a parent was fearful of spiders they can transmit this fear to their child, unwittingly. It is part of the flight, fight or freeze response to scary situations or things, but it is a response which may take over your rational mindset. In the flight or fight response, adrenalin is released and your heart beats faster to help you get ready to fight or run. This can make you feel sick or faint. 
Registered Counsellor Julie Vale

You could develop a phobia about anything - driving, water, tomatoes - you name it, there will be someone in the world that has developed a fear of it. There are some theories that suggest that some phobias are innate (i.e. you are born with them) - for example, a fear of snakes. Generally, however, phobias develop following on from a highly unpleasant experience involving a specific object or situation and heightened anxiety accompanying this. Anxiety is your brain's way of telling you to 'be aware' or that there is danger present. The next time you think of or encounter the object or situation, your brain remembers the unpleasant previous experience and you feel anxiety once more.



Phobias can be insidious and creep on you while they take hold. By avoiding things which cause you to be anxious, a greater fear of them becomes more entrenched. This avoidance of the object can then become, over time, a phobia. An anxiety about going to the dentist in childhood, for example, can become a distressing phobia by adulthood if it is avoided. The original fear may also extend to things which are associated with the original object of fear, so a fear of clowns may extend to a phobia of circuses. Anxiety-related difficulties such as phobias can be especially troubling for children and adults with autistic spectrum conditions. As phobias can induce very distressing levels of anxious arousal, you may go to all lengths to avoid confronting your objects of fear - so to seek therapy and confront those fears by talking about it initially may be more bearable.
Registered Counsellor Gill Brennan


Childhood traumas

There are many possible individual causes of phobias. For one individual, they may relate to forgotten trauma or unmet needs in childhood. There may or may not be a connection with neglect or abuse. The initial trigger may appear insignificant from an adult perspective, but at the time it could well have been associated with strong, unpleasant emotions. Over the years an aversion to these emotions can develop and they become associated in your mind with an event, a person, an action or other stimulus, which become triggers, reigniting those original unpleasant feelings. This in turn will affect your behaviour; you may especially use avoidance behaviours. You may feel a need to prevent bad things happening to yourself or others, and this could lead to compulsive behaviours. In this case, there is a need to identify and challenge the faulty thinking or erroneous beliefs underpinning the phobia or compulsion.
Registered Counsellor Keith Beckingham

Finding support

If you are concerned about the issues raised in this article then you may like to read about finding the right therapist for you. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.

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Updated 27 November 2014