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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

  • Having to be pinned down by the nurse to get an injection

  • Being involved in a car crash

  • Experiencing a “random” panic attack

It’s important to note that there is no such thing as a “random” panic attack as they are all brought about by a particular process. Panic attacks are the equivalent of an emotional pressure cooker - Stress and emotional pressure can only be contained for so long until it needs to come out. It’s very common for people to experience their first “random” panic during a time of stress, exhaustion and grief.

The phobic response can also be learned from parents or elders

It may be that you witnessed a parent, elder or sibling experiencing a panic attack when they saw a spider. As we tend to look to our parents and elders for guidance and security, especially in our younger days, this can prompt an array of emotions. Instability, worry and panic about our own security make us feel helpless or in danger. Unfortunately, this is the ideal breeding ground for phobias.

This further reiterates the fact that it was the way the event made us feel rather than the event itself which brought on the “random” panic attack. This is illustrated in the following example:-

Consider the scenario, three people are in the same car and involved in a car crash but only one person develops a phobia of driving. How can this be? All three were in the same scenario and their real experiences similar if not identical. The individual who developed a phobia described their perceived experience as something that brought about feelings of helplessness, panic, terror or having no control.

The others involved in the crash simply got a fright, they were shocked but they didn’t experience the same emotional upheaval or form the same conclusions.

Indirect causes of phobias

While not as common as direct causes of phobias, around 30% of those seeking therapy experience this cause. An indirect cause can be traced back to seemingly unrelated and indirect limiting core beliefs about ourselves or life around us, BEFORE our phobia, ever existed. Later on in life, we go through experiences that activate and associate those limiting beliefs to the triggering event.

Again, it is probably easiest to explain indirect causes of phobias with real-life scenarios:-

A phobia of cats

This is a fascinating example of how your mind and body can associate events in early life with triggers in later life. I once worked with a lady who came to see me about her phobia of cats. In her mind, the phobia began when she was 12 years of age and she was scratched by a cat. In our first session, we resolved the memory and released those negative associations. However, when she arrived for the second session she said that she didn’t feel any better.

Delving deeper into the thought process associated with her phobia of cats, we chatted over various scenarios and thought processes. This is when she described herself as feeling powerless around cats.

But how can this be?

A human is genuinely fearful of a creature roughly the size of a builder’s

size 12 boot. But is she genuinely fearful of cats?

As we explored the theme of powerlessness a memory suddenly popped into her mind’s eye. She recalled a time when she was seven years old and dancing to a song on the radio in her kitchen.

The song was called “I’m too sexy for my shirt” and her father stormed into the kitchen, absolutely furious and told her to turn that off instantly. In that moment she described her experience as “I felt like my father took my power away from me in that moment”.

So, at seven years of age she had developed a belief in her mind and a feeling in her body that she had no power. It was not until five years later that she was scratched by the cat which in itself was no big deal. However, the simple scratch created an underlying emotional and psychological trigger regarding her feeling of powerlessness.

At 12 years of age, she concluded that even cats have more power than her and her fear developed from there. From then on it was simply a case of resolving that underlying belief of powerlessness, and at that moment her fear of cats no longer existed.

Phobia of dogs

Another interesting case was when I worked with a lady who had a phobia of dogs. Having been chased by a dog as a teenager, she felt very nervous and shaky any time there was a dog near her - specifically dogs off a lead.

In a similar fashion to the earlier example, our first session focused on the memory when she had been chased by the dog, releasing the negative associations. However, again this had no significant impact on her fear of dogs.

During future sessions, we discussed the specific nature of her problem with dogs. Despite the fact she had a particular phobia of dogs being off their lead, she was fearful “because you can’t control them”. After further discussion, it emerged that the problem was not being able to control a dog on a lead, it was the fact it could be embarrassing.

She quickly skimmed over the issue of embarrassment which triggered my curiosity.

This issue with embarrassment could be traced back to an event as a nine-year-old girl in primary school. One day she was in the classroom and tried to remove her pullover school jumper.

Unfortunately, she accidentally pulled up her polo shirt underneath and inadvertently exposed herself to the classroom.

She described it as a feeling of so much shame and embarrassment that everyone saw what was underneath. From that moment onwards she concluded that she never wanted to feel embarrassed like this again.

Subconsciously, she was carrying this extreme fear of feeling embarrassed through her whole life.

She soon began to associate this with the fact she could not control random dogs that were off their leads. Her fear was they could jump up or attack her and make her feel embarrassed.

As soon as we resolved the underlying fear of embarrassment the phobia was gone. This is because she didn’t have a phobia of dogs, she had a phobia of being embarrassed.

Movie related phobias

One final example in this article revolves around indirect phobias developing as a consequence of the movies we watched as kids and the stories we were told.

Picture the scene:-

You are watching films such as The Titanic or Jaws, taking in the images and the ideas formed by the movies. At the time they don’t seem extreme or relevant but this can change very quickly if you go swimming!

Many of us like to watch horror movies or listen to ghost stories. Over time, these could play on your mind until you develop a phobia of the dark or being alone.


As we have touched on above, there are various ways in which you can develop phobias both directly and indirectly.

Many people fail to realise that phobias can either develop instantly in a moment and/or they can gradually develop and worsen over time.

The good news is, we have developed an advanced method for treating the most extreme lifelong phobias. You can meet Lewis and learn more here:

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