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Why do people develop fears and phobias

There are many factors that contribute to the development and maintenance of phobias. Firstly we must discuss what is known about the origins of natural fear before considering clinical evidence on the genesis of abnormal phobias. Fear is a very ancient and universal emotion in man. It can be defined as the sensation felt when you are in danger, a feeling that something bad is about to happen. When it is not justified by the presence of real danger or threat, or by any rational cause, and when it is also accompanied by a systematic avoidance of the situations which lead to it, then we have what s called a phobia.

Phobia is actually a kind of panic reaction caused by specific stimuli or situations. The development of this type of anxiety disorder can depend on several different factors. These can include a fusion of biological, cognitive and social dynamics. Within this essay I will attempt to represent the main factors considered to be the origins and catalysts of human fears and phobias. Fears are a normal protective response to possible harm or injury. It is innate in all of us, a protective natural mechanism to keep us out of harms way. However, what really distinguishes fear from phobia?

It can be described as being persistently afraid over an extended period of time. By definition, phobias are irrational, meaning that they interfere with one’s everyday life or daily routine. For example, if your fear of high places prevents you from crossing necessary bridges to get to work, that fear is irrational. If your fears keep you from enjoying life or even preoccupy your thinking so that you are unable to work, or sleep, or do the things you wish to do, then it becomes irrational. One key to diagnosing a phobic disorder is that the fear must be excessive and isproportionate to the situation.

Most people who fear heights would not avoid visiting a friend who lived on the top floor of a tall building; a person with a phobia of heights would, however. Fear alone does not distinguish a phobia; both fear and avoidance must be evident. (Lefton, L. A. , 1997 as cited in Weiten & Lloyd) For clinical diagnosis of a phobia in a child or adolescent, the fear must persist for a period of at least six months. While adults with phobias are aware that their fears are exaggerated and unfounded, this is not always the case with children.

For adults it may be helpful to distinguish between rational fears, such as fear of snakes or guns, which are survival mechanisms and serve to protect a person from danger, and irrational fears (phobias) which cannot be traced to any reasonable cause. There are different ways in which people learn fears of certain things: through a direct negative experience, by watching others show fear, and through repeated warnings. The obvious thing people think of when you ask what could cause a phobia is having had a bad experience with the object or situation they now fear (classical conditioning).

For example, if a young boy were bitten by a dog he could develop a fear of dogs. Once bitten, the boy is likely to be afraid not only of the dog that actually bit him, but also of other dogs as well; his fear has spread, or generalized, from the original feared object to other objects that are similar. Another example would be a person getting stuck on a crowded bus for a long time and then developing a fear of enclosed spaces. For several decades, psychologists assumed that nearly all fears were learned through direct negative experiences.

However, researchers began ncountering many phobic people who could not remember ever having had a bad experience with the objects or situations they now feared. For instance, researchers compared a group of college students who reported strong fears of snakes with another group of students who were not afraid of snakes (Murray & Foote, 1979 as cited in Gleitman). Among these students only three had ever been bitten by a snake and all three were in the low fear group! Most of the students who were very afraid of snakes had never even seen a live snake.

As a result of findings like this, researchers ooked for other ways to explain how people developed phobias. Another possibility that psychologists evaluated was that people could learn to be afraid of something simply by watching someone else show fear (Vicarious Conditioning). Studies of people with phobias often showed that they had first become afraid by observing fear in someone else. For instance, one snake phobic in the study just mentioned (Murray & Foote, 1979 as cited in Gleitman) said he first became frightened of snakes when he was a child.

He once saw a snake that was harmless, but the other kids e was with screamed and jumped up on chairs when they saw it. Obviously, for ethical reasons we can’t do carefully controlled experiments with children to see if we can make them develop fears by having them watch others who show fear, but researchers have been able to show how monkeys can develop snake phobias by observing others. In one study (Mineka, Davidson, Cook, & Keir, 1984 as cited in Weiten & Lloyd), researchers looked at some young monkeys who had been raised in captivity with their parents.

These young monkeys had never seen a snake, and when they were shown a snake they showed no fear whatsoever. However, their parents had been raised in the wild and were afraid of snakes. The researchers showed snakes to the parents while the young monkeys were watching. Predictably, the adult monkeys showed a lot of fear. The young monkeys were then shown the snakes again. This time, the young monkeys showed as much fear as the adults had, and their fear stayed strong for months.

Researchers were able to show that strong fears can be learned simply by watching others without directly having a negative experience. There is also some evidence that people can develop phobias simply by eing given repeated warnings about the dangers of certain objects or situations. For instance, in one study (Ost, 1987 as cited in Davison & Neale), the snake phobic with the highest level of fear had never seen a live snake. She thought her fear was due to all the stern warnings about snakes that her parents had given her during her early childhood.

They had repeatedly told her not to walk in the high grass unless she was wearing boots. These are the ways that phobias probably develop, but what keeps people afraid of these objects or situations. Why do they continue to be fraid even though they are not having more bad experiences? Fear and anxiety are unpleasant, so we try to reduce or avoid these feelings as much as possible. If we do something that reduces the fear or anxiety, we feel better. Feeling better is a reward for avoiding or escaping the situation (operant conditioning).

Due to the fact that we tend to repeat behaviours that have been rewarded, the next time we are afraid or anxious we’ll try to avoid or escape the situation again in the hope of feeling better. People who are afraid of lifts will reduce their anxiety by taking the tairs. So, by avoiding the lift they are avoiding the bad feeling, which is rewarding. This is one way that phobias are maintained. By avoiding lifts, people with lift phobias never learn that there is nothing to fear. They continue to be afraid and continue to avoid the thing they’re afraid of (Holmes, 1994 as cited in Davison & Neale).

The learning factors discussed do not fully explain why some people develop phobias and others do not. They do not tell us why four people can be stuck in a lift for several hours, but only one may develop a phobia of lifts. To explain why some people seem to be more likely than others to develop phobias and other anxiety disorders, researchers have looked at differences in biological factors. There are several biological risk factors that can make people more prone to developing an irrational fear. These are mainly concerned with what happens to us when we detect a threat that triggers fear and anxiety.

It is the difference in the level of this reaction that plays a significant part in determining whether you are more or less likely to develop a phobia. When a danger is sensed the sympathetic nervous system regulates the esponse reaction. Imagine that you have just been awakened by the sound of the smoke detector going off in your house. This kind of situation will set off a series of reactions in the sympathetic nervous system, which prepares you for “fight or flight. ” In this case, you’ll need to flee; you’ll need to get yourself and your family out of your house as fast as possible.

Your sympathetic nervous system triggers a series of physiological changes that help you escape. For instance, it will cause your heart to start pounding, sending blood quickly to your muscles, which you’ll need in order to move fast. Your breathing becomes deeper and more rapid, supplying your blood with more oxygen, which your muscles need. All digestive activity stops, the flow of saliva in your mouth will also stop, causing the “dry mouth” sensation we associate with fear. Your adrenal glands send off a burst of the hormone adrenaline.

This makes your heart start pounding and your blood pressure rise rapidly when you’re startled by something, like when some jumps out at you unexpectedly. Finally, in your brain, a chemical messenger called norepinephrine sends alarm messages throughout your brain that continue until the threat is over. After the threat has passed, and you have gotten your family out of the house and discovered that it was just dust from your furnace that had set the alarms off in the first place, another set of physical reactions restores your body to its resting state.

These reactions are part of the parasympathetic nervous system. Your heart rate and breathing return to normal, and your digestive system starts up again, so your dry mouth goes away and you start to digest your supper. This is how our bodies react to threats. We all feel fear when there is a real threat, and we all feel anxiety when we are in situations that emind us of that threat. But, as I will describe, people who are prone to develop phobias often continue to experience these alarm signals long after most of us would have stopped feeling afraid. This factor is called autonomic over-reactivity.

When researchers compare people who have anxiety disorders with people who do not, some big differences stand out (Barlow, 1988 as cited in Davison & Neale). People who have an anxiety disorder, like phobia seem to have bodies that are reacting all the time, as if they were under constant threat. That is, the ympathetic nervous systems of people with phobias appear to be more active and more easily set off then those of people without a phobia. Researchers think that this over-reactivity is inherited and probably starts before the anxiety disorders develop.

Another difference between people with phobias and those without has to do with how quickly the alarm systems turn off. When potential threat signals, like loud noises, are repeated over and over, most people get used to them, and their bodies stop reacting with alarm. However, the bodies of people with phobias are very slow to get used to threat signals. That is, heir bodies keep reacting to repeated threat signals long after most of us have realized that the threat has passed and have stopped reacting.

In addition to biological risk factors, psychologists have identified some cognitive factors that may increase the risk for developing anxiety disorders such as phobias. Cognitive factors are factors related to how we perceive threats and what we think about them. Such as increased attention to threat cues. Numerous studies have shown that people with anxiety disorders pay more attention to signs of threat than people who don’t have anxiety disorders (e. g. , Burgess et al. 1981; MacLeod et al. , 1986; Mathews et al. , 1990).

For example, one type of study that has been done a number of times requires anxious and non-anxious participants to perform a colour-naming task (Mathews and MacLeod, 1985). The colour-naming task requires people to name the colour that the word is written in. Researchers (Mathews & MacLeod, 1985) wanted to see whether people with anxiety disorders would be more distracted by threat-related words than people without anxiety disorders. The researchers found that anxious people took longer to name the colours of the threatening words, like “coffin” or inferior”, than the non-threatening words, like “leisure.

The threatening words seemed to interfere with the anxious people’s performance because their attention was drawn to them. You could say that the anxious people had problems screening out the threat words. The colour-naming task is just one study, but many like it have shown that the attention of people with anxiety disorders is selectively drawn to signs of danger, even when they are trying not to let this happen. This selective attention to threats is not intentional. It happens automatically without the person even being aware that it’s happening.

This increased attention to threat cues seems to be one of the cognitive factors that play a role in anxiety disorders, including phobias. Another important cognitive factor is that people with phobias have an automatic tendency to automatically misinterpret neutral or ambiguous words or situations as threatening. In one study researchers read a list of words to anxious and non-anxious people, and asked them to write down each word as they heard them (Mathews, Richards, & Eysenck, 1989, as cited in Weiten & Lloyd).

Most of the words were straightforward ones like “pencil,” and “flannel. However, some of the words could be spelled two different ways, depending on how they were interpreted. One example is the words “slay”, which “sleigh” or “slay”, other examples are “bury/berry, and die/dye. ” The researchers found that the anxious people were more likely to write down the threatening version of the words. As well as the factors I have discussed within this essay, there is new evidence that suggest a gene abnormality in a majority of those with phobias and other anxiety disorders.

Dr. Xavier Estevill, the head of medical and molecular genetics at the ‘Duran y Rynals Hospital’ in Barcelona, reported his findings at a meeting of the Human Genome Organization (2000). In his study the first 140 people he analysed from various families in a Spanish village who suffered from either social phobia or fear of open spaces almost 100 percent had a duplication of the chromosome 15. He also examined 70 unrelated people with phobic problems and found that 97 percent had the abnormal chromosome.

In a comparison group of 189 people with no anxiety disorders, only 7 percent had the duplication. Estevill’s research suggested that gene on some other chromosome, or some nvironmental factor early in development may cause the abnormality in chromosome 15, which in turn causes people to be more susceptible to phobias and anxiety. Despite the evidence that relates phobias to genes, the abnormality is only a susceptibility factor. Estevill stated “not every one with the mutation will develop the disorder”.

In conclusion, it is apparent that there are several different factors, such as learning experiences, biological differences, and cognitive biases contributing to the development and maintenance of phobias. One or more of these factors could cause the development of a phobia however; it is more likely that a phobia will develop if these dynamics appear together. Yet it is not certain that you will develop a phobic disorder if you do possess any or all of these dynamics.

First, people seem to be more likely to develop phobias or other anxiety disorders if their nervous systems are overly sensitive to threatening cues, like sudden loud noises. All of us have the ability to react quickly to threat, but we vary in how easily this biological alarm system is triggered. People who have these “hair-trigger” nervous systems seem to be slow to stop responding once the threat has passed. Scientists think these biological differences between anxiety-prone people and others are inherited, not the result of how we are raised.

However, being biologically vulnerable to anxiety is not enough to cause people to develop phobias or other anxiety disorders. Scientists think we also have to learn to fear particular objects or situations. This learning can result from direct negative experiences with something, be learned indirectly by seeing others show fear, or learned through being arned repeatedly about the dangers of particular objects or situations.

Once people have developed a phobia, they remain afraid due to the relief they feel when they avoid the feared object or situation. Cognitive biases also add to a person’s staying afraid by causing them to selectively focus on threats and to interpret situations in the most threatening way. Therefore, even something as simple as a strong and irrational fear of snakes may be determined by the combination of many different but interlocking factors, most of which are not under the person’s direct control.

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