The Psychology of Phobias

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A phobia is defined as a type of anxiety disorder that causes an extreme or irrational fear of something. The most common phobias include the fear of snakes, heights, germs, thunder/lightning and small spaces. An estimated 19 million Americans have at least one phobia, with many having multiple. As of 2018, no one knows the exact reason why these fears develop, but experts have come up with three major theories.

The first theory, created by Sigmund Freud is called the Psychoanalytic Theory. It suggests that people have unconscious impulses or thoughts that cause conflict between the three parts of the human personality, which are the id, superego and ego. The id part of the mind consists of the inherited components of the personality and emotions. The superego holds learned morals and values, along with feelings like shame and guilt. Lastly, the ego is the conscious (waking) and decision making part of the mind. If something does not seem right, then the ego will try to fix it using coping mechanisms, such as repression and sublimation. When a bad memory, thought, or event is repressed the mind will pass that anxiety onto something that is often smaller, resulting in a phobia. To sum it up, the feared object is not the root cause of the anxiety. Today, this theory is not as popular as it was many years ago.

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The second theory is called the learning theory. The learning theory is very broad and includes many theories of behavior centered around the learning process. This can be found in the work of Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner who introduced conditioning that occurs through interaction with the environment. A phobia can be learned through Classical Conditioning when a thought or idea that causes fear (unconditioned stimulus) is paired with something that should not cause fear (neutral stimulus.) In Operant Conditioning, a phobia is the result of negative or positive reinforcements. Finally, a fear can also be learned through witnessing or hearing the experience through other people which is explained in the Social-Cognitive Theory.

The last theory is focused on the branch of psychology called neuropsychology which studies the brain’s structure and function. Based on the medical model, mental illness should be treated through the use of medication. Studies show that people who suffer from phobias have a problem with the regulation of the chemical serotonin in the brain and can be treated with antidepressants. Researches have also found that genetics may play a role in phobias. However, it is not known yet if there is a specific genetic difference in all people who have phobias.

It is very likely that there is no one leading factor to why people develop phobias, but a combination of many factors. For example, a terrible experience may lead to a learned response. The development of a phobia is in fact, extremely complex.

This can be applied to my life because many people in my family have the same fear of being in an enclosed space. The size of the room doesn’t matter, but the door has to be open or they will have a panic attack. It possibly could have been learned when my aunts were younger because their mom had the same fear, which stemmed from her getting locked in her room at a young age. As of right now, I don’t believe that I have any phobias.

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