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Causes of Phobias

There is no one cause of phobias. For some people, there is an obvious environmental cause or life event that causes the phobia. For others, there seems to be a stronger genetic predisposition. It is likely however, that both biology and environment come together to play a role in the development of a phobia.

Sometimes environmental factors play a prominent role in causing a phobia to develop. Undergoing a traumatic even can create a strong association between situations reminiscent of the event, and intense fear. For instance, being attacked by a dog at an early age can causes an irrational fear of dogs following the incident. Similarly, observing someone else going through a traumatic event, such as dying in a car accident, can also result in a phobia. During the trauma, the intense fear experienced is strongly linked to the situation, such that afterward, memories of the situation elicit similar fear. If you witness a traffic accident in which someone is covered in blood, and this provokes intense fear in you, it is likely that fear will be experienced the next time you see either blood or a busy intersection. This can turn into a phobia if you try to avoid being in contact with or thinking about blood or cars. In fact, the more you avoid these activities, the less opportunity you have to disprove the assumption that they are dangerous. Building them up in your mind without evidence to disconfirm the belief they are dangerous can maintain and increase anxiety until you develop a full-blown phobia. This is why cognitive behavioral therapy for phobias is so effective – it focuses on changing assumptions about and reducing avoidance of the feared situations.

Phobias are not only the result of past trauma. In reality, most people with phobias are not able to identify a causal trauma that provided the spark for the phobia. There is some evidence that phobias, to a large degree, are hardwired in our genes. It is notable that most people who develop phobias only develop them in response to things with some possibility of danger. In other words, many people have a fear of water, and water can be life-threatening if you are unable to swim. Very few people however, are afraid of light. Or the color blue. Researchers have used this as evidence to support an evolutionary theory of phobia, in which fear of certain threats (such as other animals) was adaptive with regard to keeping the species alive.

In addition to evolutionary theory, there is other evidence that supports the idea that genes and biology play a role in causing phobias. Twin studies are very helpful in determining how much a disorder or illness is influenced by genetic factors. Because identical twins share the same genes, we know that if one has a genetic disorder, the other will have a high likelihood of sharing the disorder. This has proven to be the case with phobias. Three in four sets of twins in which one has a phobia, both twins have the phobia. The most current research suggests that almost 50% of the development of phobia can be attributed to genetic loading.

At Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Los Angeles, we specialize in anxiety disorders, such as phobias. Call or email today to schedule an appointment.