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How Are Phobias Created? - A phobia therapist explains

The subject of how phobias are created is a very interesting one. As we delve deeper into this issue, you will soon realise that your phobia is a behavioural response.

This article will highlight the fact that some phobias are related to very obvious experiences in our past whilst others appear on the surface to be unconnected to past experiences that we hold in our minds, often unconsciously.

So how do phobias develop?

Every phobic response is a learned behavioural response, often revolving around:-

  • A feeling of Fear, Panic, Helplessness, Future-focused Anxiety

  • Catastrophising thoughts

  • Avoidance

  • An internal battle with ourselves for control

These are all surface-level symptoms of an unconscious set of conclusions that we hold about ourselves and life around us and they are triggered in a split second. This triggering causes a very well-practised behavioural response that we call “a phobia”

The key is that all behavioural responses follow a set process and all behaviours can be changed.

The fact that this split-second unconscious decision-making process is so fast and automatic, makes it appear to be completely out of our control as if it’s happening to us, and this only adds to our fear.

Unpleasant and traumatic experiences

A phobia will usually develop as a result of an unpleasant or traumatic experience prompting an intense emotional reaction such as pain, fear, panic, helplessness, shame, terror, guilt and embarrassment.

It is at this moment that we conclude two things:-

  1. Oh my goodness, I never want to feel like this or experience this ever again

  2. We form negative associations with the “thing” or “circumstance” that made me feel that way.

With these two conclusions, we have connected our very intense resistance to ever feeling that way again with deep conviction that this “thing” or “circumstance” will cause us to feel that way again. So it’s no wonder that we panic when confronted with it - we have literally given our power away to an external “thing” or “circumstance” that we have no absolute control over. On a deeper level, we are demanding an absolute guarantee of control over something that isn’t realistic and that plays a part in our tension and anxiety too.

These feelings are usually reinforced by further negative experiences of our phobic response being triggered which I call the snowball effect. Typically phobias get worse over time because of this.

As many people with phobias will confirm, we begin to develop a fear of our own phobic response for how unpleasant it feels and the perceived potential of social implications.

This fear of fear is the perfect recipe for a phobic response – we need to break the cycle.

The fear of fear itself

At the point we identified the “thing” or “circumstance” as a reason why we feel this way, this creates a bridge between that undesirable feeling on the inside and our fear of ever feeling that way again, with the external trigger.

The situation is usually reinforced by further negative experiences of our phobic response being triggered. In this scenario, we actually begin to develop a fear of our phobic response which is in effect a fear of fear.

Moving forward, this fear of fear causes many people to feel constantly tense and on high alert, while trying to control and manage our external experiences, and the world around us.

Why does my mind do this?

Simple, your mind is trying to protect you from the phobic response, the perceived risk and the fear which follows.

We can show you how to eliminate this fear without the stress of exposure therapy or years of tedious therapy. Click the button below to find out more:

Peeling back the layers of fear and panic

If you knew for certain that your fear had been eliminated, your phobic response was no more and the connected symptoms of fear, panic and repulsion disappeared, how would you feel about this “thing” or “circumstance”?

The truth is that you would be okay with what you have been trying to avoid. So long as your phobic response was completely gone. You don’t have a phobia of spiders, cats,, vomit, needles or flying, you have a phobia of that reactive feeling being triggered.

The “thing” or the “circumstance” is the trigger that phobia sufferers will do anything to avoid. The false assumption we make however is that it’s the source of our fear. When in fact, our fear is self-generated albeit unconsciously.

So what causes a phobia to develop?

In my experience of working with thousands of phobias, there are direct and indirect causes.

Direct causes of phobias

Direct causes are the most obvious and most typical known reason for a phobia manifesting.

As a consequence of a traumatic or unpleasant experience, in our mind, we draw the following two conclusions:-

  1. I never want to feel like this again

  2. That thing made me feel like this and I need to avoid it

It is probably more helpful to put this into perspective with some examples we can all appreciate.

Some of the most common direct experiences which may lead to the manifestation of a phobia


  • Getting bitten or chased by a dog

  • Stung by a wasp as a child, overwhelmed by panic or pain in that split second

  • Being on a very turbulent flight