Maggie A's Meanderings




 June 10, 2012

Why Common Wisdom Is Wrong on the Origin of Phobias

If you listen to common wisdom, the origin of phobias is a traumatic experience in early childhood. Someone scares a kid by popping a balloon and the kid grows up to be scared of balloons. A dog barks at a baby and the baby ends up with a phobia about dogs.

I'm going to call "bullshit" on that theory.

You see, when I was young enough my age would have still been counted in months, I was badly scratched by a cat. This resulted in screaming, crying and my mother (who hated cats with an irrational passion) never letting me forget I'd been badly scratched by a cat. common wisdom, I should have a cat phobia, not a pet cat.

Incidentally, I am positive that "pet cat" is why I got badly scratched by that long ago cat...........because I'm certain I kept trying to pet cat even though cat didn't want to be petted, hence, the scratching. If it had fur, I wanted to pet it. That is a trait I have had since babyhood. I had to learn as I grew older to evaluate each individual animal for its willingness to be petted and to respect that decision. Even today I'm still attracted to petting zoos. (I was very excited to pet my first skunk earlier this year.)

In a repeat of my childhood "trauma," one day I was outside with Trilby Kitty, my slightly spoiled and utterly adored pet cat, talking with a neighbor who was babysitting her toddler grandson. We both told the boy to leave the cat alone. The cat told the boy to leave the cat alone by moving off every time the boy tried to pet him. Boy would not listen. Then we heard the screaming and crying as the upset boy with tears streaming emerged from around the corner saying the cat bit him (and believe you me, my cat can and will bite very hard). All the sympathy the boy got was being yelled at by his irritated grandmother, "I TOLD YOU TO LEAVE THE CAT ALONE!!"

So.......painful and "traumatic" experience followed-up with being yelled at. Yes. Phobia? No.

In fact, lesson not even learned. Because a year or so later the same boy got bit in the face by the family dog. He wouldn't leave the dog alone. The dog even crawled behind the couch (which was the dog's private space in the house) to get away from the boy. But the boy was still little, and he squirmed his way behind the couch to keep trying to pet the dog. The dog finally bit him around the eye and the bite was serious enough to leave a scar.
(No one, not even the mother, blamed the dog. Everyone knew the boy wouldn't leave the dog alone.) That should qualify as a single traumatic childhood event.

At this point, if common wisdom on phobias were correct, this kid would have phobia about family pets. But, like me, he's an animal lover. (It's a trait so inherent in some children, I've often wondered if there isn't a genetic component to it.) But, like me, this boy has finally learned to respect what an animal is saying to him. (He now leaves my cat alone unless I'm holding the cat in my lap where he can safely pet the cat.)

Now I'm not saying that traumatic childhood experiences have nothing to do with phobias. But I am saying there's something very important that's being missed here.

There has to already be a base for that trauma to build on.

It's like an avalanche. The snow or the rocks are there not causing any problem until something triggers them to fall.

I knew a little girl who had a phobia about big dogs. According to her mother, a big dog had come up to her while she was in the stroller and barked loudly at her, scaring big dog phobia. What the mother hadn't noticed about her daughter was the girl was one of the most timid children I had even seen. Sweeter than sugar, but there wasn't a bold bone in this girl's body. I used to babysit her, and I had to be very gentle and quiet with her.

Why do some children fall off a horse, get hurt and develop a phobia while other children fall off a horse, get hurt and don't? I think the ones that do had a buried uneasiness about horses to begin with.

I suspect anybody who has a phobia about loud noises never liked loud noises to begin with.

I never developed a phobia about cats. I did develop a phobia about American cockroaches
 when I got scared by my initial encounters with them as a child in Mississippi (see The Suburban Wilds -- Creepy, Crawly Cockroaches). The difference between cats and cockroaches is I didn't have an irrepressible love for bugs as I did for furry animals. I liked butterflies, fireflies, ladybugs and roly-polies, but that was about it for my fondness of the bug world. And there were plenty of bugs I was afraid of (though not to level of a phobia) like bees and wasps or, at the very least, annoyed by like mosquitoes and gnats. It was a good base to build a phobia on.

I think, when it comes to developing phobias, that there has to have already been a firm foundation for the phobia to take root in and grow from. And that's why phobias are so hard to treat --- because you're not just dealing with one childhood incident. There is the underlying fear which provided a fertile ground for the phobia to spread through the psyche and reach its unreasonable proportions. (And that's what a phobia is --- not a rational fear, but a fear that has reached unreasonable proportions.)

But, however much common wisdom has misjudged the origin of phobias, I think common wisdom is absolutely correct in how to treat a phobia. It has to be faced to be gotten over.

I know I finally got over my American cockroach phobia after I moved to woods infested with them. Didn't matter how much I sprayed, I couldn't keep them out when I lived in the middle of what was basically one giant roach nest. Once waking up with cockroaches crawling on me was a nightly occurrence (if not multiple times a night) in addition to all the evening encounters, it just wasn't possible to maintain a phobia about them. Now I can't say I deliberately chose to face and overcome my phobia of the American cockroach. If you had phrased it like that I would have said, "No thanks." But the place was cheap --- it was the only place I could afford to live on my own ---- it allowed pets and it had free cable. I'd just moved in and I wasn't moving out, cockroaches or no cockroaches. So I'd say getting over my cockroach phobia was the side benefit of my poor financial circumstances. But sometimes life gives you a bonus ---- though I know most people wouldn't call living with cockroaches a bonus. However, in my case, it got me over my phobia.

So face your phobia. But understand the roots go deeper than common wisdom says it does.
phobia cartoon

For more on my take on common wisdom, read "If I Die Before I Wake," "7 Scary Things You Didn't Know about Your Pet's Food" and "Let the Hurricane Roar -- 'Cause What Can I Do about It Anyway?"

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