Got Anxiety? The anatomy of a phobia (part 2) |

Got Anxiety? The anatomy of a phobia (part 2)

Barry Barmann, Ph.D.
Special to the Bonanza

Editor’s Note

This is the second in a four-part series of columns from Barry Barmann about phobias.

Click here to read part one.

Fear pathways related to the onset of a phobia occur as the result of three different, yet inter-related modalities: (1) Classical Conditioning, (2) Observational Learning, and (3) Evolutionary Survival.

In part 2 of this series, we’ll look at all three.


According to classical conditioning theory, those who develop a phobia report having experienced a traumatic event while directly interacting with a specific object or situation (stimulus) which, in the past, has never triggered a fear response.

Following the traumatic experience, they now find themselves fearful of that particular stimulus. For example, a phobia of driving might first develop after a person experiences a terrible accident (the traumatic event) while traveling in his or her car.

In the past, driving was never a situation that resulted in a fear response. However, due to the association between driving and having the accident, the person now finds himself or herself fearful of driving.

Another example might involve someone who experiences his or her first panic attack while in an airplane. Although this person has never feared flying in the past, he or she now avoids any form of air travel.

A criticism of this model is that some people report never having had a traumatic experience with a particular object that they currently fear.

In addition, an individual may report fearing a specific stimulus that he or she have has before encountered (e.g., a person who has a phobia of flying, despite never having been in an airplane).

Also, not all people who have experienced trauma paired with a situation, develop a phobia of that particular situation.

Rather than discount the validity of this model, it is better to conclude that it does not appear to have the ability to predict when an individual will acquire a phobia, nor which specific objects become associated with phobic responding.


A second modality for the development of fear pathways involves observing another individual undergoing a traumatic experience involving a particular object.

The observation may be either direct (in person) or indirectly, such as watching a TV documentary on snakes. This vicarious acquisition of phobias, as well as the degree of phobic responding, is also dependent on certain characters of the person (the model) who is being observed experiencing the traumatic event.

The more similar the model is to the observer in terms of gender, age, race, etc., the likelihood for the acquisition of fear development increases.

In addition, the degree of phobic responding (highly anxious behavior) of the model will also contribute to the likelihood of developing a phobia in similar situations.

Another important characteristic of the model includes their “authoritative value,” as viewed by the observer. Thus, observing one’s parents, coaches or teachers behaving in a fearful manner when interacting with a particular object (e.g., a snake) increases the chances for developing phobic responding when needing to interact with the same object.

This “authoritative value” characteristic also helps to explain why phobias are typically acquired during childhood. Similar to one of the criticisms related to the Conditioning Model is the fact there are studies that document that many individuals report having observed others undergoing a traumatic experience with an object, yet the observer never acquired a phobia related to that object.


Fear has a protective function in that it helps us to avoid real threat. It increases our ability to survive actual danger.

From an evolutionary stance, it makes sense that organisms would need an efficient genetic mechanism for acquiring fear when exposed to dangerous situations.

From a diagnostic standpoint, Specific Phobias are divided into 4 categories:

Animal (spiders)

Natural Environment (heights)

Situational (enclosed places)

Blood-Injection-Injury (sharp objects)

These categories share a similarity; they all relate to evolutionary survival. This model holds that humans are genetically predisposed to fear stimuli that once threatened prehistoric man, which would explain the logic regarding these specific phobia categories.

A genetic fear which is not dependent on prior learning, would have survival value. Individuals I see in my private practice often report having no memory of experiencing a traumatic event related to their feared object.

However, even a mild negative experience with an object related to these categories could trigger our evolutionary vulnerability to fear the object, thus explaining phobic responding as the result of both the conditioning and evolutionary models.

Phobias can be viewed as exaggerations of natural fears, particularly with respect to animal phobias — stimuli that were responsible for killing our prehistoric ancestors.

It is clear that objects and situations that posed the greatest dangers of mankind’s ancient environment, such as snakes, spiders, enclosed spaces, heights and storms, easily trigger phobias.

In contrast, phobias are rarely triggered by the greatest dangers of modern society, such as guns and electric sockets!

Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California and is co-executive director of the Center for Anxiety & Chronic Worry, with offices in Incline Village. He may be reached for comment at; visit to learn more.

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