Why do people develop fears and phobias?

There are many factors that contribute to the development and maintenance of phobias. Firstly we must discuss what is known about the origins of natural fear before considering clinical evidence on the genesis of abnormal phobias.

Fear is a very ancient and universal emotion in man. It can be defined as the sensation felt when you are in danger, a feeling that something bad is about to happen. When it is not justified by the presence of real danger or threat, or by any rational cause, and when it is also accompanied by a systematic avoidance of the situations which lead to it, then we have what is called a phobia.

Phobia is actually a kind of panic reaction caused by specific stimuli or situations. The development of this type of anxiety disorder can depend on several different factors. These can include a fusion of biological, cognitive and social dynamics. Within this essay I will attempt to represent the main factors considered to be the origins and catalysts of human fears and phobias.

Fears are a normal protective response to possible harm or injury. It is innate in all of us, a protective natural mechanism to keep us out of harms way. However, what really distinguishes fear from phobia? It can be described as being persistently afraid over an extended period of time. By definition, phobias are irrational, meaning that they interfere with one\'s everyday life or daily routine. For example, if your fear of high places prevents you from crossing necessary bridges to get to work, that fear is irrational. If your fears keep you from enjoying life or even preoccupy your thinking so that you are unable to work, or sleep, or do the things you wish to do, then it becomes irrational.

One key to diagnosing a phobic disorder is that the fear must be excessive and
disproportionate to the situation. Most people who fear heights would not avoid visiting a
friend who lived on the top floor of a tall building; a person with a phobia of heights would, however. Fear alone does not distinguish a phobia; both fear and avoidance must be evident. (Lefton, L. A., 1997 as cited in Weiten & Lloyd)

For clinical diagnosis of a phobia in a child or adolescent, the fear must persist for a period of at least six months. While adults with phobias are aware that their fears are exaggerated and unfounded, this is not always the case with children.

For adults it may be helpful to distinguish between rational fears, such as fear of snakes or guns, which are survival mechanisms and serve to protect a person from danger, and irrational fears (phobias) which cannot be traced to any reasonable cause.

There are different ways in which people learn fears of certain things: through a direct negative experience, by watching others show fear, and through repeated warnings.

The obvious thing people think of when you ask what could cause a phobia is having had a bad experience with the object or situation they now fear (classical conditioning). For example, if a young boy were bitten by a dog he could develop a fear of dogs. Once bitten, the boy is likely to be afraid not only of the dog that actually bit him, but also of other dogs as well; his fear has spread, or generalized, from the original feared object to other objects that are similar. Another example would be a person getting stuck on a crowded bus for a long time and then developing a fear of enclosed spaces.

For several decades, psychologists assumed that nearly all fears were learned through direct negative experiences. However, researchers began encountering many phobic people who could not remember ever having had a bad experience with the objects or situations they now feared. For instance, researchers compared a group of college students who reported strong fears of snakes with another group of students who were not afraid of snakes (Murray & Foote, 1979 as cited in Gleitman). Among these students only three had ever been bitten by a snake and all three were in the low fear group! Most of the students who were very afraid of snakes had never even seen a live snake. As a