Why do people develop fears and phobias? Essay

This essay has a total of 3133 words and 18 pages.

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

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 result of findings
like this, researchers looked for other ways to explain how people developed phobias.

Another possibility that psychologists evaluated was that people could learn to be afraid
of something simply by watching someone else show fear (Vicarious Conditioning). Studies
of people with phobias often showed that they had first become afraid by observing fear in
someone else. For instance, one snake phobic in the study just mentioned (Murray & Foote,
1979 as cited in Gleitman) said he first became frightened of snakes when he was a child.
He once saw a snake that was harmless, but the other kids he was with screamed and jumped
up on chairs when they saw it.

Obviously, for ethical reasons we can't do carefully controlled experiments with children
to see if we can make them develop fears by having them watch others who show fear, but
researchers have been able to show how monkeys can develop snake phobias by observing

In one study (Mineka, Davidson, Cook, & Keir, 1984 as cited in Weiten & Lloyd),
researchers looked at some young monkeys who had been raised in captivity with their
parents. These young monkeys had never seen a snake, and when they were shown a snake they
showed no fear whatsoever. However, their parents had been raised in the wild and were
afraid of snakes. The researchers showed snakes to the parents while the young monkeys
were watching. Predictably, the adult monkeys showed a lot of fear. The young monkeys were
then shown the snakes again. This time, the young monkeys showed as much fear as the
adults had, and their fear stayed strong for months. Researchers were able to show that
strong fears can be learned simply by watching others without directly having a negative

There is also some evidence that people can develop phobias simply by being given repeated
warnings about the dangers of certain objects or situations. For instance, in one study
(Ost, 1987 as cited in Davison & Neale), the snake phobic with the highest level of fear
had never seen a live snake. She thought her fear was due to all the stern warnings about
snakes that her parents had given her during her early childhood. They had repeatedly told
her not to walk in the high grass unless she was wearing boots.

These are the ways that phobias probably develop, but what keeps people afraid of these
objects or situations. Why do they continue to be afraid even though they are not having
more bad experiences?

Fear and anxiety are unpleasant, so we try to reduce or avoid these feelings as much as
possible. If we do something that reduces the fear or anxiety, we feel better. Feeling
better is a reward for avoiding or escaping the situation (operant conditioning). Due to
the fact that we tend to repeat behaviours that have been rewarded, the next time we are
afraid or anxious we'll try to avoid or escape the situation again in the hope of feeling

People who are afraid of lifts will reduce their anxiety by taking the stairs. So, by
avoiding the lift they are avoiding the bad feeling, which is rewarding. This is one way
that phobias are maintained. By avoiding lifts, people with lift phobias never learn that
there is nothing to fear. They continue to be afraid and continue to avoid the thing
they're afraid of (Holmes, 1994 as cited in Davison & Neale).

The learning factors discussed do not fully explain why some people develop phobias and
others do not. They do not tell us why four people can be stuck in a lift for several
hours, but only one may develop a phobia of lifts.

To explain why some people seem to be more likely than others to develop phobias and other
anxiety disorders, researchers have looked at differences in biological factors.

There are several biological risk factors that can make people more prone to developing an
irrational fear. These are mainly concerned with what happens to us when we detect a
threat that triggers fear and anxiety. It is the difference in the level of this reaction
that plays a significant part in determining whether you are more or less likely to
develop a phobia.

When a danger is sensed the sympathetic nervous system regulates the response reaction.

Imagine that you have just been awakened by the sound of the smoke detector going off in
your house. This kind of situation will set off a series of reactions in the sympathetic
nervous system, which prepares you for "fight or flight." In this case, you'll need to
flee; you'll need to get yourself and your family out of your house as fast as possible.

Your sympathetic nervous system triggers a series of physiological changes that help you
escape. For instance, it will cause your heart to start pounding, sending blood quickly to
your muscles, which you'll need in order to move fast. Your breathing becomes deeper and
more rapid, supplying your blood with more oxygen, which your muscles need. All digestive
activity stops, the flow of saliva in your mouth will also stop, causing the "dry mouth"
sensation we associate with fear.

Your adrenal glands send off a burst of the hormone adrenaline. This makes your heart
start pounding and your blood pressure rise rapidly when you're startled by something,
like when some jumps out at you unexpectedly. Finally, in your brain, a chemical messenger
called norepinephrine sends alarm messages throughout your brain that continue until the
threat is over.

After the threat has passed, and you have gotten your family out of the house and
discovered that it was just dust from your furnace that had set the alarms off in the
first place, another set of physical reactions restores your body to its resting state.
These reactions are part of the parasympathetic nervous system. Your heart rate and
breathing return to normal, and your digestive system starts up again, so your dry mouth
goes away and you start to digest your supper.

Continues for 9 more pages >>