Why Do People Develop Phobias?



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“What’s to blame for our fears? Are we destined to have fears and phobias based on the genes we inherit, or are our experiences to blame?” – Seth J. Gillihan Ph.D.


One of the most human and instinctive traits that we humans have is fear.  Fear is one of the primary reasons why humanity will and has survived all throughout these years.  Fear allows us to discern and evaluate the potential dangers around and within the environment that may cause us harm or pain.  This emotion is natural not just to us but to almost all living organisms as it is programmed within the very consciousness of our existence.


Rational and Irrational Fears

Fear can be classified into two factors – rational fear and irrational fear.

  • Rational fear is fearing something within reason to a particular situation or scenario where the potential harm can occur.
  • Irrational fear is far more different.  It is an abnormal fear of a specific thing or situation that induces the desire to avoid it even if awareness and assurance that the given object or situation does not pose potential harm and danger. This irrational fear is called a phobia.



A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder where people develop a persistent fear of a specific thing or situation. These fears are often excessive and without reason, where people who have developed phobias to different things often intensely fear things that in reality are no threat or danger to their physical or mental wellbeing.

Dr. Dena Rabinowitz, a licensed psychologist from New York City, said in an interview, “Phobias tend to cluster around common themes, animals, storms, certain unnatural environments. But there are some unique phobias. So, for example, in New York City, we have a lot of pigeon phobias. Because pigeons are around.”

Genetics and Environmental Factors

The causes of the different phobias are not specific. They can develop during childhood, adolescence, or adulthood, depending on the present situation or environment a person is subjected to.  People can also develop phobias by linking or associating specific past events that were frightening and stressful to them, causing them to fear a repeated incident regarding that one particular thing or situation.  Environmental factors may also lead to the development of phobias, like children learning to fear what people around his or her early years also fear.

Margie Mader, LMFT, wrote, “When someone comes into my office and says they are suffering from anxiety, panic attacks or phobias, I ask them one question. “When did this start?” We can usually pinpoint it back to at least one traumatic incident that has impacted their system (mind, body, and spirit) so severely that it keeps replaying and therefore causing discomfort.”


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Small or big events a person experiences can trigger emotional distress, which in turn can lead to phobias.  These experiences may or may not be first hand but can play a factor in fear of occurrence to the self.  There are also phobias that are developed genetically, where memories are passed down from generation to generation that allow offspring to inherit these fears from their ancestors.  Also, there have been studies that support that both rational and irrational fear of things and situations are imprinted to genes that can be passed on.


How You Will Respond To Your Phobia Makes A Difference

Distinguishing the origin of phobias is not exact as it differs from individual to individual. The sources of fear may be the same, but the emotional response to them can vary. Experiences are also subjective and personal which may lead to different interpretations and associations.  There is no particular cause for why we develop phobias, only genetic and environmental factors that play specific roles in the development of our thoughts and our psyche that often defy logic and reason.

Living with phobias may sometimes be difficult, but facing these fears is the only solution for you to master and own them.