Causes of Phobia

The primary cause of agoraphobia is panic attack associated with panic disorder. Approximately 40 percent of people with panic disorder develop agoraphobia.

The cause of social phobia is unknown. There is a possibility that altered function of serotonin (a neurotransmitter involved in many behaviors) may be a factor.

A frightening or threatening experience with an animal or in a particular situation can cause a specific phobia. For instance, someone who has been bitten by a vicious dog may generalize their fear to include all dogs, regardless of the animals' dispositions.

Fear can be learned from others as well. For instance, the child of a parent who responds with intense fear and anxiety whenever they encounter a harmless garden snake learns to respond to snakes with the same fear and anxiety.

Phobia Signs and Symptoms

Panic attack is common in people with agoraphobia, social phobia, and specific phobia. Symptoms experienced during a panic attack include the following:

  • Abdominal distress (diarrhea, nausea, constipation)
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Fear of dying
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Feeling faint, dizzy, lightheaded, unsteady
  • Feeling of choking
  • Feeling of unreality or of being detached from oneself
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Palpitations, pounding heart, racing heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath, feeling smothered
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking

Some people with agoraphobia become fearful of having a panic attack in any public place or situation and eventually fear and avoid leaving their home. Some are capable of leaving home only with someone they trust. Others become completely housebound. Those who are housebound can suffer severe anxiety or nervousness even inside their home.

People who suffer social phobia may experience severe anxiety or dread or a panic attack when they endure a social or performance situation.

When a person with specific phobia encounters the feared object or situation they may experience severe anxiety or dread or a panic attack.

Another common symptom experienced by people with phobias is anticipatory anxiety. Anticipatory anxiety can cause people to avoid situations in which they might have a panic attack or to avoid the objects that trigger a response of intense fear and anxiety.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 31 Jan 2001

Last Modified: 01 Oct 2015