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Theories of Phobia Development

What is a phobia? A phobic disorder is a marked, persistent, and excessive fear and avoidance of specific objects, activities, or situations. There are two types of phobias.  Specific phobia is an irrational fear of a particular object or situation that markedly interferes with an individual’s ability to function.  Social phobia involves an irrational fear of being publicly humiliated or embarrassed. The top ten most common phobias are:   Arachnophobia- fear of spiders, tends to effect women more than men Ophidiophobia- fear of snakes, often evolutionary, personal or cultural experiences.  Acrophobia- fear of heights, can lead to panic attacks and avoidance of heights.        Agoraphobia- fear of situations where escape can be difficult. Cynophobia- fear of dogs, often caused by a personal experience. Astraphobia- fear of thunder and lightning. Trypanophobia- fear of injections. Social phobias- fear of social situations. Pteromerhaophobia- fear of flying. Mysophobia- fear of germs or dirt.

What causes these phobias? The causes of phobias are not yet fully understood. Researchers have identified several contributing factors. Studies have shown that those who suffer from anxiety disorders, including phobias, have a problem with the regulation of serotonin levels in their brain. Serotonin is a chemical that acts as a neurotransmitter (modulate the signals between neurons and other cells). Researchers have also discovered that genetics may play a role in the development of phobias. They have not yet isolated the specific gene that is responsible for phobias but they have found certain anomalies in patients that suffer from phobias. Genetic predisposition is a theory that says a certain percentage of people have the genetic trait to cause mental illness. But most people with the trait do not develop a disorder. The disorder occurs only after a triggering event. A triggering event is different for everyone, but generally a trauma or a time of severe stress. Preparedness theory of phobias is that people are instinctively predisposed toward certain fears. Pavlov’s theory is known as classical conditioning. Pavlov’s theory supported the preparedness theory. Research shows that humans and monkeys can quickly be conditioned to have a fear response to a stimuli. Phobias are particularly likely to form for objects that evolution has predisposed us to avoid.


Mary has claustrophobia (a fear of enclosed spaces). She traced her fear to her childhood, her older brothers would lock her in closets and confine her under blankets. It got to the point where she was unable to find a job because she was afraid of elevators and other confined places. Many people feel anxious in enclosed spaces, but Mary’s fear was abnormal and got to the point of putting unwanted restrictions on her life.


Isn’t it natural to avoid the thing you fear? So how might people overcome their phobias? Avoiding a phobia, you never learn how to cope with your fear and take control of the situation. Facing your fears is key. The best way to overcoming your phobia is gradually and repeatedly exposing yourself to what you fear in a controlled and safe way. Through this you will learn that the worst isn’t going to happen, you’re not going to “die” or “lose it”. Relaxation therapy is also an effective way of overcoming some phobias. Here’s how it works: Someone who is afraid of flying first looks at pictures of an airplane in a relaxed environment in a therapist’s office. Then, they imagine steps

leading to an actual-still imaginary-flight. At each step, they practice relaxing. Once the anxiety has been reduced, they are ready for exposure. Although it depends on the severity of the phobia, there may never be a complete cure to the phobia. For specific phobias desensitization and relaxation therapy techniques are effective. Treating social phobias usually involve gradual exposure along with role-playing. Medication may also be used to help with the conjunction with therapy but may not be part of the initial treatment.