What Causes Phobias?

No one knows exactly what causes phobias. There are various theories that try to answer the question, as well as propose treatment solutions. Mental health experts believe that phobias, like other anxiety disorders, are caused by the dynamic mix of biological, cultural, and psychological factors. Since many of the phobias begin in childhood, experts believe they are learned responses, especially specific phobias. Parents may be phobic themselves and pass on the fears, anxious responses, and avoidance behavior to their children. A frightening or traumatic experience with the feared object may occur, for example, being attacked by a dog. Witnessing a traumatic event may also trigger a phobic reaction, for example, seeing someone drown. Having a humiliating experience may also be a cause.

Psychodynamic Theories

Psychodynamic theories vary widely. Many believe that mental conflict, such as anxiety states, are caused by emotions and impulses that are unconscious childhood fantasies and memories, such as loss and guilt. When triggered in adulthood, the person develops anxiety.

Others state that anxiety may develop because of real or feared separation from parents. Unresolved childhood anxiety, for example, the fears in separation anxiety disorder is a cause of developing other anxiety disorders in adult life.

Biological Theories

Biological theories look at recent findings that indicate that abnormalities in certain neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine may be the culprits. Others are studying the amygdala, a part of the brain that is linked to emotions, such as fear and anxiety. These researchers are looking for differences or abnormalities in anxious people. Some experts believe that phobias have a genetic basis and inborn traits, such as being self-conscious, shy, and cautious, make one more likely to develop phobias. Mental health experts agree that there is no one reason why you develop a phobia and someone else may not. Another point of agreement is that people and their phobias are complex matters and no simple solution will cure them.


Dysthymic disorder is an underlying depressed mood for at least two years. People with dysthmia describe themselves as being sad or blue most days. Other symptoms include low energy, low self-esteem, problems with eating and sleeping, poor concentration, and little interest in life's activities.

Related Conditions

If you have specific or social phobia, you have a high risk of developing other conditions, because these are long-lived persistent disorders that threaten to severely impair your life. Other emotional conditions often appear due to the difficulty in normal functioning or as coping mechanisms to ease the anxiety. These conditions include: depression; dysthymic disorder, which often begins in childhood and is linked to social phobia; panic disorder with agoraphobia; substance abuse; low self-worth; and suicide.

Other physical illnesses and conditions that present especially in social phobia can be severe. Headaches, body pain, stomach ailments, and skin conditions are common. The ability to become independent, have good relationships, marry, and be successful professionally are very difficult to achieve for people with social phobia.

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