Do Phobias Arise From Traumatic Experiences?

Do Phobias Arise from Traumatic Experiences?

Needles, blood, heights, bugs and sinister clowns. These events or objects are common protagonists of many people’s phobias. A phobia is not merely feeling a deep dislike for the real or hypothetical presence of a particular stimulus, but rather it implies that the person experiences excessive levels of anxiety regarding the danger posed by the object.

On the other hand, those who suffer from this disorder execute avoidance behaviors with the aim of staying away at all costs from situations where the object could appear, which is colloquially called I can’t even see it. This could lead him to shape her life around avoiding his fear, leading to negative consequences at work, school, or interpersonal relationships.

Now: why does a person have a phobia of something? Common sense could suggest that the cause lies in a history of traumatic experiences that may accompany the phobic, but there are many cases in which these historical events are not so easy to record, or that the past is not able to explain the phobia. Maybe you know someone yourself. In fact, different groups of researchers seem to have realized that finding a univocal cause underlying the appearance of this disorder is not a simple task. For this reason, in this article we will delve into the possible factors that intervene in the development of a phobia.

How is the cause of a phobia determined?

The discipline that attempts to account for the causes that sustain diseases, which includes psychological disorders, is known as etiology. At first hand, the purpose of etiology seems complex; But when we specifically refer to the search for the origins of a psychic disorder, things get even more difficult.

You may be interested:  The 4 Pillars of Self-esteem (and Tips to Improve It)

Psychology has always encountered the problem that the psychological processes that occur in the human mind cause difficulties for their study, since they are imperceptible to public observation. Although it may seem obvious, highlighting this is of particular interest to us because it means that the processes that cause a phobia are not directly observable. The way to determine the reason for a psychopathology is by making inferences according to its manifestations, for example, according to the behaviors that a person carries out or the symptoms they experience. So, if we want to find the cause of a phobia, we must keep in mind that determining A → B is almost impossible, and if it were achieved, it is very likely that this statement would be susceptible to multiple questioning, reformulations and refutations, a dynamic that occurs constantly in the scientific field.

Beyond traumatic experiences: three possible causes of a phobia

In psychology, many schools coexist that use their own epistemological principles and theoretical constructs to explain the causes and reasons for the maintenance of psychological diseases such as phobias. An interesting theory to study the origins of phobias is three pathways theory —also called tripartite or three paths theory—, proposed by Rachman in the late 1970s. Despite being several years old, there are recent studies that provide some empirical support for the theory. It hypothesizes that the acquisition of excessive fear regarding a specific object or situation may not be due exclusively to a traumatic experience, but rather its origin could lie in one of these three causes. Let’s see them below.

1. Due to direct experience

The first possible cause for the development of a phobia is, for Rachman, direct experience. It is the first cause that comes to mind when we think about why someone feels an irrational fear of something that could be harmless. It means having experienced a traumatic experience in the past (many of them occur in childhood, but they could also occur in adulthood) that justify terror towards an object. For example, it is common for many people to be phobic of domestic animals—the vast majority of which do not pose any real danger—since in the past they were scratched by a cat or bitten by a dog. From this experience, the person learns that this stimulus implies a threat and directs him to make decisions whose ultimate goal is to avoid proximity to the feared object.

You may be interested:  Types of Affective Disorders

2. Due to imitation

However, traumatic experiences are not enough to explain the causes of all phobias. For Rachman, another possible way to develop this disorder is by taking close people as models —parents, siblings, uncles—who have had specific behaviors that demonstrated fear because of certain objects. This would imply that a possible origin of the phobia is that we learn to be afraid of certain objects or events by imitating referents (what in English is known as modeling).

3. Due to cultural representations

Finally, Rachman suggests that the development of an intense fear of an object could come not from one’s own experiences, but from exposure to certain implicit messages of the cultural environment in which we are immersed. That is to say, The cause of this fear would be information or instruction. It is for this reason that there are certain phobias more common than others in Western societies, since the cultural representation of some objects tends to associate them with negative or aversive qualities.

In line with the last possible cause for phobias, a very interesting research carried out by the University of South Wales indicates that the fact that the fear of clowns is so recurrent is due, in part, to the historical representation that These have been attributed as perverse or erratic characters.

Researchers point out that this portrayal of clowns began towards the end of the 19th century with the opera Pagliacci as a milestone (in which the main character murders his lover and his wife disguised as a clown) and which persists today, as clearly illustrated by the work of Stephen King, Item. The information we receive about clowns, whether verbal or through images, characterizes them under a terrifying image: they have an inhuman appearance – an effect that is aggravated by makeup, which completely covers their skin and exaggerates certain facial features. They behave unpredictably—which implies imminent danger—and the preponderance of pale and reddish colors on their faces lead us to associate them with negative abstract concepts such as contagion and disease. We could even think of other examples, such as spiders. Might not part of our fear of them come from cultural products rather than the real harm they could cause us?

You may be interested:  Gephyrophobia (extreme Fear of Bridges): Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

The importance of psychotherapy to treat phobias

In short, we can conclude with the following idea: Although many phobias originate due to a person’s traumatic experiences, this is not the only reason through which a phobia can arise. In any case, consultation with a mental health professional can be useful to overcome this disorder, carrying out interventions and proposing activities so that the patient or consultant is gradually exposed to that feared object, always taking into account the particularities of each case.