top of page

The Psychology of Phobias

What are phobias?

The word “phobia” is often thrown around quite mindlessly, but how much about it is really known? Phobias are irrational and excessive fears of objects or situations. They are long-lasting and cause psychological reactions, such as anxiety or dread. However, unlike general anxiety disorders, reactions by phobias are triggered to specific objects or situations. People living with phobias are often aware of the irrationality of it, but are unable to control it.

What are symptoms of phobias?

Phobias often cause panic attacks when the person is associated with the specific object or situation, hence both phobias and panic attacks usually have similar symptoms.

Physical symptoms include:

  • Feelings of dizziness and nausea

  • Quickened heart rate and/or heart palpitations

  • Feelings of suffocation and/or shortness of breath

  • Hot and cold flashes

Psychological symptoms may result from the physical symptoms, such as:

  • Fear of losing control

  • Dissociation (feeling detached from one’s body)

What causes phobias?

Studies have shown that it is not the actual object or situation itself that causes the phobia, but rather the reaction or trauma generated as a result of it. Though it is still not clear how phobias are developed, here are some of the many theories of it:

  1. Past incidents or traumas

This is the most common way phobias are produced: the anxiety and/or fear generated in a specific situation during a traumatic incident due to a specific object may become the subject of one’s phobia. For example, one may have thalassophobia- the fear of the ocean. Before the phobia developed, they were probably not scared of the ocean itself, but after a traumatic experience like drowning, thalassophobia develops.

  1. Nurture

Studies have shown that phobias may be picked up by one from someone close to them at an early age. This could be a family member who has a fear of snakes, causing them to act in fear overwhelmingly, which could then be adapted by a young child, who also develops the same irrational fear of snakes.

  1. Genetics

A phobia is also a kind of anxiety disorder, and can therefore be inherited in the same manner. People whose family members have anxiety disorders may be more prone to developing phobias and irrational fears. However, this is exclusive and not all who have anxiety disorders will pass it onto their offspring.

What are risk factors of phobias?

  1. Age

As phobias are usually developed after a traumatic experience during young age, the younger someone is, the more prone they are to phobias. Small and normal fears about specific objects may also grow into phobias as children mature. Young children may also lack skills to realise that someone close to them has irrational fears, picking up phobias from them.

  1. Negative experiences

Traumatic experiences are what cause phobias most of the time, but hearing about negative experiences may heighten this. This could be hearing about people drowning in sea, leading to a phobia of the ocean.

  1. Relatives

As mentioned previously, genetics play an important role in the development of phobias. In addition, people we grow up around also influence phobias. Therefore, if one’s family members have anxiety disorders or specific phobias, they become more prone to them as well.

How does one treat phobias?

Phobias, like any other mental illness, are treatable. Psychoanalytic treatment explores the root of phobias, addressing any deep conflicts and defense mechanisms stemmed from traumatic experience which then causes trauma. This lets those with phobias come to terms with their irrational fears, making peace with them in a way and improving their phobias.

Like panic attacks, phobia symptoms can be dulled and reduced by self-care. Here are some tips on that:

  • Grounding methods: focus on physical sensations / five senses

  • Breathing exercises

  • Talking to someone about it


Researcher: Sylvia


bottom of page