Acquisition of Phobias
A phobia in a clinical psychology context can be defined as a specific type of disorder which involves anxiety (Chong, & Hovanec, 2012). IT is the persistent fear that an individual will show towards an object, or even situation. An individual who suffers from anxiety disorder or has a phobia will go to a greater length in order to avoid in quite a way that can be said to be very disproportional to the actual danger that is posed and mostly considered as irrational (Chong, & Hovanec, 2012). When an individual is not able to endure the situation, they are forced to undergo the whole experience involved with a lot of distress and this can be observed through the significant interference or disruption on the social life of the person or the occupational activities that the individual undertakes.
To understand the terms such as distress and impairment with regard to the phobia issue, DSM IV suggests that there is need to consider the environment within which an individual exists in so that a clear diagnosis of the phobia (Haddad, Lissek, Pine, & Lau, 2011). According to the DSM-IV (LeBeau, et al, 2010), if a stimulus which causes phobia either an object or even a certain situation, is not present entirely within a given environment, then it is not possible to make any informed diagnosis of the phobia a person experiences or displays (Stein, 1995).
The term phobia can best be understood if discussed under various terms which may include specific phobias and social phobias. Specific phobias will include words such as arachnophobia or acrophobia which are specific. On the other hand, social phobias are ones which are found or experienced within situations which relate to the social life of an individual such as speaking in public and may be areas which are crowded (Kitchen, 2011).
Phobias must possess the characteristics such as show symptoms of avoidance of the object or situation in addition to impairment (Chong, & Hovanec, 2012). Impairment is defined as the inability to complete a certain routine task which can either be occupational, social or even academic. Avoidance is defined as the behaviour an individual will show towards omitting or staying away from an event or objective that will cause them distress (Heimberg, 1995). This is done with an aim of preventing any form of anxiety as a result of the object or situation.
According to the DSM-IV, specific phobias are classified into five subtypes which will include animal, natural environment, blood-injection-injury, situational, and other (Lilliecreutz, Theodorsson, Sydsjö, & Josefsson, 2011). Children between the ages of 7 and 9 usually experience phobia involving animals, natural environment such as darkness. In addition, they will demonstrate phobia towards blood-injection-injury at the same age. Specific phobias are also common among children aged between the ages of 10 and 13 years (Lilliecreutz, Theodorsson, Sydsjö, & Josefsson, 2011).
On the other hand, social phobias always involve the fear that an individual has about public situations and scrutiny, which in many instances always lead towards humiliation or embarrassment. People who display social phobia show a lot of self- consciousness which results into a very powerful fear (Burns, 1991). Public phobia is always present from the time of puberty transition of children unlike the specific phobia which is always present below the age of 10 years. After the puberty transition, it can be noted that public fear always increases with age (Burstein, Georgiades, He, Schmitz, Feig, Khazanov & Merikangas, 2012).
To explain the acquisition of the phobias in human beings, two theories have been brought up to help explain how people acquire phobias. The two theories include the Biological theories and the psychological theories.
With respect to psychological theory, there are two theories namely learning and behaviourism theory. According to psychological theories, phobias are acquired through learning from the environment within which an individual exists in. The psychological theories include three aspects which help to explain how one acquires phobia. These three conditionings include the classical conditioning, operant conditioning and social conditioning (Burstein, et al, 2012). These three encompass the learning theory which states that the development of a phobia in an individual is as result of fear responses being punished or reinforced. Reinforcement and punishment under this theory can either be negative or positive. Positivity occurs when something positive is presented while negativity occurs when something negative is reinforced (Chong, & Hovanec, 2012). When a parent rewards a child for staying away from a snake is positive reinforcement while positive punishment occurs when something is presented in a negative way such as when a child is bitten by a snake. According to the learning theory, the three conditionings help to give a clear perspective towards phobia (Nicholas, 2008).
One of the conditioning is classical conditioning that is explained as the process which involves the creation of an association with a stimulus which naturally exists and a previous stimulus that is neutral. This conditioning explains that the phobia that an individual may display can closely be related with their past experiences which were traumatic (Chong, & Hovanec, 2012). For example, when a child is bitten by a dog, in future the child will, display fear towards any dog that he/she may come across as a result of the past traumatic experience they had. In addition, this classical conditioning also explains that an individual may show or demonstrate state of phobia as a result of false alarm, for example, having a panic when in a lift (Chong, & Hovanec, 2012).
The other conditioning is operant conditioning that makes use of punishment and reinforcement which in turn helps to create an association between certain behaviours and the consequences those behaviours may have. Also referred to as instrumental conditioning, operant conditioning is simply a method of learning which always occur as result of the rewards and punishments for the behaviours of an individual (Tulbure, Szentagotai, Dobrean, & David, 2012). According to this conditioning under the learning theory of psychology, when an individual approaches an object or situation that causes phobia, the anxiety response becomes more increased, while the reverse is true. This conditioning explains that the more an individual will continue to avoid the situation or the object which causes their phobia, the person is likely to continue doing so. Some people may exercise avoidance unknowingly while others may exercise it with full knowledge (Tulbure, Szentagotai, Dobrean, & David, 2012).
The third conditioning is social conditioning, which simply refers to the sociological phenomenon that is always characterized by a process which involves inheritance of traditions and transmutation of culture which is gradual then passed down through generations (Tyson& Cruess, 2012). Social conditioning involves various social patterns and also social structures which reflect in the lives of people. According to the learning theory and the issue of social conditioning, phobia is acquired as a result of the social influences that an individual faces which can be through observation or participation in a situation (Kitchen, 2011). For example, observation of fear in another person, such as a parent will condition an individual to have a phobia towards a particular object or situation which has made the other person to experience fear (Brumariu, & Kerns, 2010). Hearing of danger from another person is also another social conditioning which causes phobia in an individual. This simply means that a phobia towards an objective or a situation that an individual will demonstrate will be as a result of the social environment within which the individual interacts with or lives in (Kitchen, 2011).
Therefore, from the psychological perspective and according to the learning theory and behaviourism, acquisition of phobia in human beings is as a result of various conditionings that will influence the fear that an individual will demonstrate or show towards a certain object or situation. Psychological perspective demonstrates that phobia acquisition is conditioned by three elements which include classical, social and operant (Hirai, & Vernon, 2011).
Biological theories also tend to play a significant role in the acquiring of phobia. With respect to biological basis various researches that have been conducted to try and explain how phobia can be acquired biological, the biological basis stands out, whereby according to this medical model of psychology, the mental disorders that people experience are as a result of psychological factors (Papakostas, Shelton, Kinrys, Henry, Bakow, Lipkin & Bilello, 2013). Through neuropsychology, which is a branch of psychology that helps to understand the structure and the functionality of the brain, neuropsychologists have, in their researches identified that there are some genetic factors which play a role in the development of phobia in animals, especially human beings. This is still an ongoing research whereby, it is understood that there are some forms of medications which affect the chemistry of the brain and hence helpful in finding cure for phobias (Brumariu, & Kerns, 2010). According to the medical model on mental illness, there is some relationship that exists between physical aspects and mental disorders. This model suggests that mental illnesses should be treated using prescription medications and has to be treated as a medical condition.
According to studies that have been conducted with respect to brain chemistry, it has been found that those individuals who suffer from anxiety disorders which include phobias always have a problem which involves the regulation of serotonin levels in their brains (Brumariu, & Kerns, 2010). Serotonin has been identified as the chemical which acts as a neurotransmitter, which in turn help in modulating the various signals between neurons and the other cells in the brain (Kojima, Fujiwara, Matsuda, Narita, Matsubara, Nonoyama, & Matsumoto, 2013). Serotonin performs in the brain and helps in moderating the mood of an individual. When the level of serotonin is too high or too low, this can lead to depression or anxiety, hence phobias are always treated using a certain class of antidepressants which are known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). SSRIs are the most effective and only form of medications which are used to treat patients who have phobias (Papakostas, et al, 2013).
Moreover, from researches which have been made, it has been discovered that genetics have a role that they play in the development of phobias. Researchers have also discovered that genetics may play a role in the development of phobias (Parsons, & Ressler, 2013). Researchers have identified that there are certain genetic anomalies which are always found in patients who suffer from phobias, although they have not been able to identify specific genes that is specifically responsible for the cause of phobias in people. This means that it is not yet known whether there exists any specific genetic difference in people who suffer from phobias (Brumariu, & Kerns, 2010).
With respect to the theory of genetic predisposition, there are those people who have genetic traits, which result into mental disorders or illnesses, although research has shown that many of the people who have the trait do not necessarily experience mental disorder. It has been observed that the mental disorders in the individual who have the trait are always as a result of a triggering event (Schutters, Dominguez, Knappe, Lieb, Van Os, Schruers & Wittchen, 2012). According to this theory, the triggering events are always different in each person but it is always a time which involves severe stress or trauma. The way an individual will react to those stresses or traumas psychologically or emotionally will trigger the mental disorders in an individual. This only occurs in individuals who carry the genetic trait or predisposition.
This theory is quite new and quite controversial although it would be quite helpful in giving an explanation as to why major events such as wars always affect different people in quite different ways (Rofé, 2000). According to research conducted on preparedness, Schutters et al., (2012) researchers tried to find out whether people could develop phobia as a result of genetic predisposition to be afraid of certain situations or objects that may pose a threat to them. Seligman (1971) suggests that people have developed phobias towards various situations or objects which pose potential threat to human beings many years ago. According to Seligman, people who demonstrate or develop phobia in the present times are those people who tried to avoid such objects or situations in hunter gatherer times (Doctor, Kahn, & Adamec, 2008).
This means that the act of avoiding situations or objects has undergone evolution and has been passed through genes from one generation to another (McKay, & Storch, 2009). In addition, he suggested that there was biological preparedness, which is a predisposition that requires one to be sensitive towards a certain stimuli. According to Fryer et al suggested that individuals whose first degree relatives had a specific phobia were likely to show or have the same specific phobia. On social phobia, there was no high accordance that was made or discovered (Reuther, Davis, Grills-Taquechel & Zlomke, 2011).
According to Eysenck, there are those people who are more vulnerable towards anxiety hence phobia than other people (Brumariu, & Kerns, 2010). In addition, Eysenck suggested that there are some people who are easily frightened by stimuli which provoke fear such as movies and heights (Perese, 2012). The autonomic nervous system of human beings always controls the emotional responses that people will display (Tierney, & Connolly, 2013). Due to the control of the autonomic nervous system on emotions, it has been observed that there are some people who have a higher rate of autonomic response or reactivity hence will develop a phobia much easily and quicker (Brumariu, & Kerns, 2010).
From the above discussion of the psychological acquisition of phobias and the biological explanations on the acquisition of phobias, it can be noted that there is some differences in the two ways of phobia acquisition (Papakostas, et al, 2013). The main point that stands out is that there are different causes of phobia in human beings but mainly psychological. Biological acquisition of phobia has not been fully proved by researchers whether there is a specific genetic trait which causes phobia (Heimberg, 1995). In addition, form the research that have been previously conducted, it has been noted that different types of phobias stem from different causes which is best explained using the three types of conditioning under the psychological acquisition of phobia.
- Brumariu, L. E., & Kerns, K. A. (2010). Mother-Child Attachment Patterns and Different Types of Anxiety Symptoms: Is There Specificity of Relations?. Child Psychiatry And Human Development, 41(6), 663-674.
- Burns, R. B. (1991). Essential psychology: For students and professionals in the health and social services. Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic.
- Burstein, M., Georgiades, K., He, J., Schmitz, A., Feig, E., Khazanov, G., & Merikangas, K. (2012). Specific phobia among u.s. Adolescents: phenomenology and typology. Depression & Anxiety (1091-4269), 29(12), 1072-1082.