What causes a phobia?

We have a helpful system in our brain that takes note of things that are scary or dangerous – things that we should stay away from for our survival. It lies in a primitive part of the brain, generally not within our intellectual control.

A structure in the primitive brain called the hippocampus stores ‘templates’ of things we need to be afraid of so that we can stay safe, and we add to this store of templates with our experiences. If we have a bad experience – a trigger event – such as a really turbulent flight, we become scared. We produce adrenaline and experience the associated physical symptoms of the fight/flight response (racing heart, sweaty palms, upset tummy) and as we can’t get away, we feel terrible.

When this happens, a template is laid down in the hippocampus which, for our own safety, will encourage us to avoid this same distressing situation in the future. So, when we do experience the same situation again, there is a ‘pattern match’ and the primitive brain will make every effort to keep us away from it, producing that flight/flight response again, despite what our intellectual mind may be telling us. Phobias can, in this way, lead us to avoid situations, places and events, preventing us from experiencing life to the full.

Phobias can be overcome by gradual exposure to the situation or by encouraging the brain to become bored by an imagined repetition of the situation. This lets the intellectual mind recognise that the situation is not really dangerous and take back the control.