What Causes Phobias

Phobias. While some people believe we all have them, the truth is they are not that common. It is estimated that less than 20% of the population in the United States have phobias. The confusion comes about because a phobia isn’t just a fear of something, it is an excessive, irrational, uncontrollable fear of something.

A person with a phobia generally knows their degree of fear is excessive, but cannot control their response. They will often put themselves in greater danger than what they fear to avoid what they fear. For instance, someone whose phobia concerns doctors may avoid going in for a strep test, risking rheumatic fever.

In some cases, phobias show up early in a child’s life. A child with a parent who experiences anxiety may be more prone to developing a phobia than one whose parents do not. These early phobias are usually simple, such as a fear of the dark or falling. Often these early simple phobias go away on their own by the child’s late teens.

More complex phobias usually develop later in life, though even then their origin may be from an event earlier in life. An indicator that someone is more prone to developing phobias is anxiety. In some cases, caving to anxiety over time can cause a phobia to develop out of the behavior.




Stressful events are believed to cause phobias in some people. Someone who gets stuck on an elevator may develop claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces) for instance. These stressful events may leave a kind of blueprint in a person’s brain. When the person is in a similar situation later the brain recalls it, and reacts strongly.

Brain trauma is a specific type of stressful event that has a high correlation to people developing phobias. Similarly, people with on-going health concerns or medical conditions often have phobias. Substance abuse falls into this category as well.

Finally, there is some evidence that genetics can be a factor in phobias. This is not usually true with simple phobias. Many of those are learned, but there are always exceptions.

If you are in Philadelphia and think you may have a phobia you will benefit from working with an experienced therapist. Call Eric Levin, PhD, today at (215) 792-19146 to schedule an appointment.