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What causes phobias?

There is not always one single cause of a phobia, and it is not always understood why some people suffer from them while others don't – but there are a number of different factors that are thought to play a role. Let’s have a look at the different types of phobias and possible causes for them.

Simple phobias

Also known as specific phobias, this is when someone is scared of something specific. It could be:

  • Animals and insects, such as spiders, dogs, snakes or rats.
  • Situations, like flying, small spaces, hospitals or public speaking.
  • The environment, such as water, heights, the dark or thunder and lightning.
  • Human body, including blood, injections, choking or vomiting.
  • More specific things, like a certain food or object.

These types of phobia can often be traced to a negative experience when you were growing up.

For example, if you were bitten by a dog as a child, you could develop a phobia of dogs. Or, if you got lost in a crowd when you were little, you could develop a phobia of crowded places.

Phobias that begin in your childhood may become less severe or even disappear as you get older. However, you can develop a phobia resulting from an incident in adult life too.

Some simple phobias can be relatively easy to deal with. For example, simply avoiding the trigger can be one way of stopping it impact you. This isn’t always easy though, depending on what it is you are phobic of.

Some people have extremely severe symptoms that can impact their life, or cause them to be scared of certain situations. In some cases, even just thinking about their fear can cause symptoms.

Learned phobias

Living with a relative that has a specific phobia can lead to you developing that same phobia. These are known as learned phobias as they have been ‘learnt’ by seeing someone else exhibit a fear of a certain thing or situation.

For example, if your parent was afraid of spiders, you may learn to react to them the same way, causing the fear.

It is also thought that having parents who have anxiety can affect how you deal with anxiety and stressful situations later in life. This may make you more susceptible to having a phobia.

Complex phobias

These usually develop in later life, and can have a serious impact on everyday living and can even lead to further complications, such as depression or other mental health issues.

Although the causes of complex phobias are not very well understood. It is thought that genetics, life experiences and brain chemistry could all play a part.

Complex phobias include:

  • Agoraphobia – a fear of being in a situation where escape may be difficult, or where help would not be available if you needed it.
  • Social phobia - also called social anxiety or social anxiety disorder is an intense fear in social situations.

The trigger for your phobia may not be apparent to you. However, if you need help dealing with a phobia or the symptoms it causes, you can speak to a doctor who can work with you to help uncover the cause. The doctor may well refer you to a psychologist or a behavioural therapist for more expert help.

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