Where Do Phobias Come From?

05/18/2015 09:15 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2016

Sometimes it is really easy to figure out why you are afraid of something. Maybe you have been afraid of driving ever since you were in a car accident, or maybe you experienced unbearable pain when you went to the dentist as a child and vowed to never go back again. Other times, identifying the situation that ignited your fear can be really hard to spot. It might even result from a combination of factors.

Here are a few theories about where phobias might come from:

Genetic Predisposition: We know anxiety tends to run in families. However, researchers do not know exactly what is inherited. Perhaps it's a more sensitive or reactive personality type a little more prone to anxiety, lower levels of neurotransmitters that regulate the fight-or-flight response, or a more excitable sympathetic nervous system.

Direct Associations: Ivan Pavlov and John Watson were the first to conduct experiments looking at the associations that were made when things were paired. Later, Stanley Rachman found phobias are created when someone has a direct negative experience with an object or a situation. For example, a friend who passed out from dehydration during a 5K race is afraid to exercise now.

Observational Learning: We learn from others all of the time -- our parents, siblings, teachers, friends, and even people on TV. Unfortunately, in the same way we learn really good stuff, we also can learn to be afraid. I have had several clients tell me they are afraid of insects because of how they have seen others react around insects.


Information: We are inundated with information these days. Some of it is really important and helpful and some of it is honestly just ridiculous and misinformed. Since the media often uses fear to grab attention, many people are often unnecessarily afraid. You can have no contact at all with an object or situation, but repeated cautions and warnings can cause fear. For example, a younger child who watched a YouTube video of someone being attacked by a dog became phobic of all dogs.

Whether you can clearly identify where your phobia came from or not, you can learn to overcome it. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America website details common symptoms, describes effective treatment, and includes a list of self-help materials and therapists in your area who specialize in treating phobias.

Dr. Umbach is the author of Conquer Your Fears & Phobias for Teens, now available at New Harbinger Publications, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.