3 Theories to Explain the Development of Phobias

Repressed anxiety, learned reaction, medical condition, or none of the above?

Experts have not yet determined exactly what causes phobias to develop. However, there are numerous theories on the development of phobias. These theories can be loosely classified into three different categories: psychoanalytic, learning based, and biological. It is unlikely that these three categories are mutually exclusive; chances are that multiple causes interact in individuals to cause phobia. In some cases, for example, it may be that biological differences in the brain are triggered by an experience -- or that a negative experience may lead to a learned response.  

Psychoanalytic Theory

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Sigmund Freud is popularly known as the father of modern psychology. His pioneering structural theory was largely based on the three stages of conscience: id, ego and superego. The id is the most primal and instinctive part of the mind and is the basis of such primitive emotions as fear and anxiety.

The superego is the selfless higher conscience, adding value judgments and the concept of guilt. The ego is the rational moderator between the two. A significant portion of the ego’s duty is to control the impulses of the id.

According to this theory, phobias are based in anxiety reactions of the id that have been repressed by the ego. The currently feared object is not the original subject of the fear.

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Learning Theory

Learning theory is a broadly inclusive set of theories that are based on principles of behaviorism and cognitive theory. Ivan Pavlov pioneered learning theory by showing that dogs could be trained to salivate when a bell was rung. Since then, numerous psychologists have built on Pavlov’s work to develop more complete theories of human behavior.

According to learning theory, phobias develop when fear responses are reinforced or punished. Both reinforcement and punishment can be positive or negative. Positive reinforcement is the presentation of something positive, such as a parent rewarding a child for staying away from a snake. Positive punishment is the presentation of something negative, such as a child being bitten by a snake.

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Biological Basis

The medical model of psychology states that mental disorders are caused by physiological factors. Neuropsychology is a branch of psychology that is dedicated to studying the structure and function of the brain.

Neuropsychologists have identified certain genetic factors that may play a role in the development of phobias. Although the research is still in its early phases, it is known that certain medications that affect the brain’s chemistry are helpful in treating phobias. Most of these treatments are intended to help relieve anxiety by increasing the level of a chemical called serotonin.

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Finding Answers

At present, we have no definitive answer to what causes phobias. Chances are, however, that there are multiple causes -- and that different individuals may develop phobias for different reasons. In some cases, a combination of genetic and physiological issues may be in play. For others, the causes may be psychological or environmental. Fortunately, exposure treatments are effective for phobias whatever their causes.

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