All entries for Wednesday 01 February 2006

February 01, 2006

On Fear II: Causes of Fear and Phobias

Follow-up to On Fear I: Functions of Fear from Reverie

Causes of Fear

All causes of Fear can be divided into four categories: intensity, novelty, hereditary natural reflexes and reasons hidden in human social interaction. Pain and loud noise are examples of intensive stimuli; unfamiliar faces can cause Fear because of the novelty. Situations known to have threatened the members of the same species for an extensive period of time may evolve into natural causes of Fear for this particular species.

John Bowbly – a famous scientist studying the development of children psychology – listed a number of inborn determinants of Fear, which he labelled ‘natural stimuli and their derivations’. Such stimuli as loneliness, unfamiliarity, sudden approach, sudden change of stimulus, height and pain were classified as natural stimuli. The core stimuli of Fear are darkness, animals, unknown objects and unfamiliar people.

Bowlby named loneliness as the most profound and the most significant cause of Fear. Other natural stimuli, such as unfamiliarity and sudden change in stimulation, have much more considerable impact if they occur on the basis of loneliness.

Bowbly also points out a group of cultural determinants of fear that are believed to be pure results of cultivation and cultural upbringing. For example, even the dimmed sound of air raid siren can plant fear in people. Bowbly notes that many of the cultural determinants of fear could represent natural determinants subtly hidden by misinterpretation, rationalization or projection of Fear. The Fear of thieves, for example, or ghosts, could be the rationalization of fear of darkness; the Fear of lightening bolts – rationalization of the fear of thunder storms. William Richman, psychologist, describes the process of cultivation of cultural determinants of fear using the concept of traumatic stipulation, that is to say, according to Richman, events or situations that cause pain can cause fear with or without the pain occurring again.


Sometimes Fears develop into forms of uncontrollable psychological disorders and become phobias. How does the natural emotion transform into a mental illness? Science doesn’t quite answer the question. According to the basic theory attempting to explain the occurrence of phobias and other severely inapt reactions to stimuli (a.k.a. irrational fears), Fears are psychological traumas, experienced in one’s childhood, forgotten, but stamped on one’s subconscious.

Most of the hypothesis explaining phobias can be divided into two major groups. One of them makes links to Freud’s concepts of psychoanalysis and the other one explains phobias using Pavlov’s conditional reflex theory. According to Russian scientists, a vast majority of phobias form as pathological stamping of conditional reflex. For example, the persistent fear caused by disruption of cardio-vascular system, pains in the heart, cold sweats occurring during one’s presence at open spaces may further develop into agoraphobia.

According to the classical conditional reflex theory, conditional stimuli gradually lose the ability to provoke reaction, if not supported by unconditional stimuli. Phobias can last for years without being supported by repeated exposure to stimuli; however this does not contradict the theory. The paces of shaping and fading of a phobia very much depend on the emotional background accompanying the formation of the temporary link between the source of fear and the fear itself.

Clinical researchers found that importunate Fears have a tendency to generalise with time. For example, initially a person develops a fear of trains due to experiencing an extensive psychological trauma related to having a heart attack during one of his train rides. At the second stage, Fear kicks in at the moment of anticipation of the train and the related traumatic experience. At the final stage irrational fear may occur with the mere notion of the situation. Quite often such obtrusive notions lead to extremely affective tense reactions.

Importunate Fears evolve with the evolution of human society. A Soviet psychiatrist Davidenkov noted that we used to fear mentally challenged, crazy or psychologically unstable people, we feared cancer, crazy dogs, syphilis; some time later we developed phobias to arterial hypertonic disorders, heart attacks, myocardial infarcts, leucosis. These changes are felt especially strong within the class of social phobias. The current phobias are much related to the crash of ideals and values, aliens (as in creatures from other planets as opposed to from other countries), STD s and AIDS.

In a vast majority of cases we develop fears in our childhood. Scientists note that emotionally sensitive children are more likely to develop fears being influenced by the following factors: presence of fear in their parents; a sense of worry in relation to the child, over-protectiveness, isolation from the children of the same age, a big number of proscriptions coming from the parent of the same sex, as well as total freedom granted by the parent of the opposite sex, also a great number of unrealised threats coming from all the grown-ups in the family, the lack of role identification with the parent of the same sex (predominantly in boys); psychological traumas such as a scare; unstable psychological atmosphere in the family and confusion caused by a switch of roles between the two parents.

There are other known hypotheses explaining the mechanism and cause of fear. In the latest decades scientists have been working to determine a gene of fear. Some scientists have detected certain changes in chromosomes of the lab rats, that were conditionally exposed to electrical current as stimuli of pain and thus fear, but it does not prove that fears can be hereditary.

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