There are several causes of specific phobia. Psychologists make a distinction between how you learned to fear something and why you still fear that thing even years later. Some theories suggest that people tend to develop phobias about objects, animals, or situations that were dangerous in prehistoric times. For example, bugs, mice, snakes, many other animals, heights, strangers, bridges, and water were all potentially dangerous for early humans. In a wild environment, these fears were very adaptive and useful. People with these fears were better prepared to avoid contamination, poisonous bites, falling off cliffs or bridges, being murdered by strangers, or drowning. But in today’s technological world, these fears are no longer as accurate as they once were.
A second origin of phobias is through learning-either connecting a bad experience with the thing you are afraid of (for example. perhaps you were bitten by a dog and developed a fear of dogs) or observing someone who is afraid and learning from their fear (for example, perhaps other family members had a fear of flying and you learned that fear from them). A third reason for phobias may be distortions in thinking. For example, a phobia may be based on incorrect information. on a tendency to predict the worst on a tendency not to use evidence that challenges the phobia, or on a belief that you cannot tolerate anxiety.
Once you learn a fear or phobia, there are a number of ways in which it is maintained. The most important reason is that you avoid the situation you fear. If you fear flying you feel less anxious every time that you decide to avoid getting onto a plane. Each time you avoid flying. you teach yourself that “the way to reduce my fear is to avoid”-that is, you learn to avoid. This is like taking a drink every time that you are anxious-you learn to drink more because it temporarily reduces your anxiety. But by avoiding the thing you fear, you never learn that you can overcome your fear. Another way you may maintain your fear is by engaging in “safety behaviors.” These are things you do or say that you think will protect you. For example, in an elevator you may hold onto its side, or in an airplane you may hold onto your seat. Or you may repeat prayers or otherwise seek reassurance when you are in a feared situation. You can come to believe that these safety behaviors are necessary for you to overcome your fear.