Phobias

Explains phobias, including possible causes and how you can access treatment and support. Includes tips for helping yourself, and guidance for friends and family.

What causes phobias?

There doesn’t seem to be one particular cause of phobias, but there are several factors that might play an important role:

  • Particular incidents or traumas. For example, someone who experiences a lot of turbulence on a plane at a young age might later develop a phobia about flying.
  • Learned responses, picked up in early life. Factors in the family environment, such as parents who are very worried or anxious, can have an effect on the way you cope with anxiety in later life. You might develop the same specific phobia as a parent or older sibling.
  • Genetics. Some research suggests that some people are more vulnerable to developing a phobia than others.
  • Responses to panic or fear. If you have a strong reaction (or panic attack) in response to a particular situation or object, and you find this embarrassing or people around you react strongly, it can cause you to develop more intense anxiety about being in that situation again.
  • Long-term stress can cause feelings of anxiety and depression, and reduce your ability to cope in particular situations. This can make you feel more fearful or anxious about being in those situations again and, over a long period, could lead to you developing a phobia.

You might find it helpful to try to work out the specific causes for your own phobia, but you might equally feel that there is no simple explanation.

"I am disabled and have had medical treatments my entire life. When I was little, I used to fight people trying to take my blood, so I would have to be held down. The people raising me were completely unsympathetic to my feelings. All of this compounded to create the intense fear I experience when I’m getting my blood drawn today."

If you avoid the object or situation that is making you phobic, this will often make your fear worse over time. However, it can be extremely difficult to face your phobia, and you may need professional help to enable you to do this.

See the Treatment section for more information.

This information was published in March 2017. We will revise it in 2020.

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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