The first thing to say about the causes of phobias is that it is not always clear why phobias occur. We should also remember that fear itself developed to protect us – there are things that we should be afraid of in order to keep us safe, and some of the fears that we have as humans seem to be without conscious control.
The question is – how does a rational (albeit occasionally sub-conscious) emotion like fear develop into a phobia, which is irrational and out of proportion. There seems to be a combination of biological and environmental factors that contribute to the development of the phobia. It is said that most phobias develop in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood, but this is not exclusively true.
Generally, the causes of phobias are split into 5 groups:
• Severe past trauma
• Severe stress
• Series of experiences occurring over a period of years, leading to excessive anxiety
• Fear of fear
• Learned from another person
Severe past trauma (especially in childhood). It will come as no surprise that a very painful emotional experience from the past can produce an ongoing unreasonable fear of the same situation, place or person that caused the fear to arise in the first place. It is also worth remembering that the traumatic event that can lead to a phobia can be a ‘third party event’, that is to say, it is possible that the event happened to somebody other than the phobia sufferer, who merely witnessed the event. I have three examples of severe trauma as one of the causes of phobia: a child being bitten by dog might develop a fear of dogs; a child trapped in room, or shut in a small space as a punishment (or an adult trapped in an elevator) might develop claustrophobia; a child witnessing a horse dying might develop a fear of horses. [This last example is a real and quite well-known example. One of Freud’s patients was a little boy known as Little Hans, who had a fear of horses. Freud attributed it to a latent Oedipal complex (supposedly, Little Hans was fearful of his father and fearful that his father would replace him in his mother’s affections, with the fear being redirected towards horses, which represented his father. It was later found, however, that whilst walking with his nanny, Little Hans had witnessed the noisy death of a horse, which had created the trauma leading to his equinophobia!]
Severe stress. Sometimes, when a person is experiencing severe stress (especially if the stress is arising from an unavoidable situation), that person may develop a phobia about something else! That is to say that the stress becomes manifest in the form of a phobia that seems to be unrelated to the original stressor. Usually, the object of the newly developed phobia is something that can be avoided. In other words, as a result of experiencing severe stress due to a stimulus that may be unavoidable, or difficult to avoid, a person may develop a phobia towards something that can easily be avoided.
A series of negative experiences. This is the situation in which a person experiences an accumulation of distressing events, all of which serve to establish the fear as being seemingly reasonable.
Fear of fear! There are people who develop a fear of panic or of fear itself. Such people are fearful that they may experience fear, and so this phobia can be associated with anything, and so they undertake avoidance behaviours that can be very limiting because the fear is not restricted to anything specific.
Fear learned from another person. We may learn a fear of someone else – a family member, a role model, or just someone with whom we are in regular contact. It does seem that some phobias ‘run in families’, but my view is that this is more likely to be a learned behaviour than genetically controlled. It is known that a person with a family member who has a phobia is about three times more likely to have a phobia (any phobia, not necessarily the same phobia) than a person with no family history of phobia.