All phobias have much the same causes; it’s just the details which differ from one phobia to another.

The Fight or Flight Reaction.

The root of the problem is that the human mind and body is not really built for modern life. We are really suited to a more basic way of life in which we faced wild animals or human enemies who might try to kill us. So when threatened, our mind and body wants to trigger some powerful action like running away or fighting back.

lion roaring
We were built to respond to very physical threats like this one!

To help us run as fast as possible, or fight as hard as possible, our breathing increases to get more oxygen into our lungs, and our heart speeds up to pump more blood to our muscles. Our bladder, stomach and bowels may feel like emptying, to offload that extra weight. The palms of our hands and sole of our feet sweat more, so as to get a better grip if we need to climb a tree to escape.

Even before we even reach this “fight-or-flight” stage, if we feel slightly threatened our body is already preparing us to spring into action at a moment’s notice. Our muscles get tense, ready for a quick getaway or a sudden violent move. Our senses are heightened, on the alert for the slightest sign of danger.

The Role of Selective Memory.

Our mind also plays its part. In threatening situations we effortlessly remember any similar situations which we have experienced before, or even heard about from other people or the media. We will tend to automatically do what we did in those previous situations— after all, we did survive those situations otherwise we wouldn’t be here!

The problem is that for many situations which threaten us in modern life, this Fight-or-flight reaction is of no help to us. In fact it makes the situation worse, because the threats we face in modern life often need to be addressed by thinking and speaking clearly rather than by running away or fighting.

A phobia develops when our brain responds to something which is actually harmless as if it was a real danger. The reaction is totally automatic and happens before we have time to think about it logically. By the time we’ve thought “that’s just a harmless spider,” it’s already too late, because the fight-or-flight response has already been triggered. We are in panic mode and cannot think clearly.

Why Knowledge is not Enough.

Basically the fight-or-flight reaction is triggered from a different part of our brain, which is separate from the part where our thinking happens. The signals from our eyes and ears reach the fight-or-flight part before they reach the thinking part. So we react before we’ve had time to think. That’s why highly intelligent people are just as affected by phobias as the less intelligent. It’s also why explaining why a phobia happens doesn’t make it go away. It’s also useless to explain that the thing a phobic person fears is not actually dangerous. They know this already, but it makes no difference to their feelings. If anything it can make them feel worse, because it’s embarrassing to know that you are terrified of something which is totally harmless.

How Phobias Begin.

So how does the brain first learn to link the fight-or-flight response to something which is actually harmless? In my experience this usually happens in early childhood when we still don’t know much about the world. We don’t know what is harmless and what isn’t. For example, as adults we know that it’s very rare for a dog to seriously injure a human. We also know that dogs make a lot of noise when they are happy and excited and want to play. But if a child isn’t used to being around dogs he knows none of these things. If he is chased by a dog he doesn’t know the dog is only playing. The dog is bigger than him and he feels in extreme danger. He has misunderstood the situation due to lack of knowledge.

Another way phobias can happen is where we encounter something quite harmless at a time when we’re already feeling very stressed and frightened for some other reason. The brain links the two experiences so closely that in future, we respond to the harmless experience as if it was the other thing. For instance, suppose a child is brought to hospital following an injury. He is frightened and in pain. If there happen to be several other children in the ward who are being sick, the child’s brain may link the thought of vomiting with the memory of pain and fear. This could trigger emetophobia which is the fear of vomiting.

Often people cannot remember any specific incident which triggered their phobia. This could be because it happened at a very young age before the memory had properly developed. But that’s no problem, because a phobia can still be treated effectively even if we do not know how it occurred.

The Inner “Part” Which Keeps Us Safe.

When a phobia arises, a part of our mind takes on the job of keeping us away from the scary experience. It’s as if we say to that part: “You make sure that never ever happens again!” And that part responds by creating a programme of behaviour to fulfil its mission. Unfortunately that programme is created using only the knowledge and ability which we possessed at that age when the phobia began. As an adult we have far more resources and knowledge to keep us safe, but the protective “part” of our mind doesn’t know that. It still works with a child-like outlook.

So for instance a young child doesn’t know how to distinguish a noisy friendly dog from an aggressive dog. And a child is too small and weak to defend itself if a dog actually attacked him or her. When a phobia has been “programmed,” the person continues to react as they would have done when they were a small child, despite all the knowledge and capability they have developed since. That knowledge and ability just shuts down when the phobia “programme” is running.

The Role of Avoidance.

Actually even as an adult they may not learn much more about the scary situation or experience, because their phobia ensures that they never actually go near it or even think about it clearly. Once a phobia has developed, the person avoids anything to do with the feared situation or experience. They can hardly bear to even read about it, let alone watch it on TV, a movie or online. This kind of avoidance is mainly what keeps the phobia going, even decades after the original trauma.