What causes phobias?

There does not seem to be one particular cause of phobias, but there are several factors that might play a role:

  • Particular incidents or traumas. For example, someone who experiences a lot of turbulence on a plane at a young age might later develop a phobia about flying.
  • Learned responses, picked up in early life. You might develop the same specific phobia as a parent or older sibling. Factors in the family environment, such as parents who are very worried or anxious, can have an effect on the way you cope with anxiety in later life.
  • Genetics – some people appear to be born with a tendency to be more anxious than others.
  • Responses to panic or fear. If you have a strong reaction, or panic attack, in response to a particular situation or object, and you find this embarrassing or people around you react strongly, this can cause you to develop a more intense anxiety about being in that situation again.
  • Long-term stress can cause feelings of anxiety and depression, and reduce your ability to cope in particular situations. This can make you feel more fearful or anxious about being in those situations again, and over a long period, could lead to you developing a phobia.

“I have a huge phobia of driving after being in a car accident… This phobia affects all aspects of my life. I miss out on social events if it means driving somewhere I’m not comfortable with… I am unable to do daily tasks such as driving to the supermarket at busy hours of the day.”

You might find that it is helpful to try and work out a specific cause for your own phobia, but you might equally feel that there is no simple explanation.

If you avoid the object or situation that is making you phobic, this will often make your fear worse over time. However, it can be extremely difficult to face your phobia, and you may need professional help to enable you to do this (see ‘What treatments are available?’ below).

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