Understanding Panics and Phobias: What is there to fear?

As children, we tend to be fearful of almost everything.

Different sensations, sounds, strangers, fear of abandonment, manmade and natural objects can all induce panics or phobias. But as we age, some of those old fears may stay with us. Moreover, we may even develop new fears, which can manifest for years unless properly treated (more on that later).

So, what is panic, and how is it that phobias are developed in us?

According to authors Christian Jarrett and Joannah Ginsburg, panic “ . . . is an emotional state of blinding fear.” The authors continue: “It is one that overcomes an individual, replacing all the rational and logical thought and often leading people to take actions that they would never otherwise contemplate, even actions that are harmful to their own well-being.”

Accordingly, there are three types of panic, as follows:

• Spontaneous

• Specific

• Situational

Each of these panic types has different ways they manifest themselves. Spontaneous panic attacks, for instance, “there is no direct stimulus.” In other words, no specific thing or event causes the panic attack. In this context, the panic attack may arise out of “general stress or specific loss.” “General stress or specific loss,” Jarrett and Ginsburg write, “is thought to lessen a person’s overall threshold, and in this state their underlying physiology becomes predisposed for the switch to flip, and an attack to be triggered.”

Other types of panic attacks—specific and situational—arise for different reasons. With regard to the former, specific events may trigger a panic attack, such as some type of personal phobia, whereas the latter, situational panic attacks occur within the context of a specific environmental trigger or situation.

With regard to the other side of the coin, phobias, many theories abound as to why they exist. Some argue, for instance, that phobias may arise out of a sort of “collective experience” within a group or subgroup. Broadly speaking, this may have evolutionary roots, and it may explain why most humans in most places at most times fear things like snakes and spiders because encounters with these creatures have proven deadly in the past. This is not the only explanation for why phobias develop, but it remains a useful explanation for the abovementioned examples. According to the authors, “. . . some studies have found that certain phobias may be heredity.” So, perhaps, genetics may play a role in the development of fear, too.

There are several ways therapists approach treating phobias and panic attacks. If you believe you have experienced one, please seek out professional assistance. Some interventions may include education, psychotherapy, or medication. Like many interventions and treatments, not any one approach may work for everyone. Finally, panic and phobias may have began as a survival response but if they remain disruptive to an individual’s life, they do not need to live with them if proper help is employed.


Jarrett, C., and Ginsburg, J. (2017). Super Psychology. Metro Books, New York, NY.

Brooke Lamberti

Brooke Lamberti is a content writer based out of Scranton, Pennsylvania. She received a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Marywood University, and has prior career experience working in social work and domestic violence advocacy. She has a passion for writing and helping others.

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