Are Fears Genetic? Can Phobias Be Inherited?

can you inherit a fear?Can You Inherit a Fear?

The other day I was having a consultation with a woman who asked me this question.  She shared that her whole family had a phobia of the same thing and she wondered if it could be genetic.

What a great question! And a good topic to cover in the blog, so here goes.

The simple answer to the question as asked? No. Fears and phobias are not inherited, nor are they genetic in nature. Temperament is a heritable trait, so you may find that your family shares a sensitive or more nervous nature, for instance, but not specific fears.

But it gets more interesting than that, and digging into the mechanisms of the phenomenon this lady was asking about reveals a lot about how we learn and the nature of suggestibility.

The fears we are born with.

Humans are actually born with just two fears — the fear of loud noises, and the fear of falling. For a helpless infant human, these fears are helpful.  Falling is obviously bad when you don’t have the mature body to help yourself from being injured in a fall, and loud noises may indicate that something drastic and potentially dangerous is happening in the immediate environment. Maybe the cave is collapsing or a bear or lion is roaring, or your parents are fighting. Loud noise = bad things; quiet = all is well, in an infant’s mind.

We are born with these fears but we don’t usually keep them.  We learn, through experience, that loud noises can equal good things. Loud music we enjoy, maybe firing guns because the family likes hunting, fireworks on the Fourth of July become associated with good times. People learn to enjoy the feeling of falling, whether its riding a rollercoaster or even skydiving.

We are learning beings and anything that is learned can be unlearned. Even the fears we were born with are transformed by our experience.

how fears are formedThe fears we acquire

Then there are the fears we acquire. These fall into two categories, really: fears and phobias.

What’s the difference?

A FEAR is a response learned through an actual experience. The dog bites the 3 year old and the 3 year old becomes afraid of dogs.

A PHOBIA feels just like a fear, but there was no actual event. Phobias can form in a couple of different ways.

Blood sugar drops and phobia formations

One mechanism for the formation of phobias involves a drop in blood sugar. I’ve gone into depth about this phenomenon in other articles, but in a nutshell, when blood sugar drops it creates a fear response in the mind/body. The brain runs on blood sugar so a drop in blood sugar is a threat to survival.

If you’ve ever passed out, you know how you totally lack control of the process. You don’t even know it’s happening until you wake up afterward. It leaves you very vulnerable, so the body does everything it can to prevent it.

The body releases a surge of adrenaline when the blood sugar starts to fall too low. The surge of adrenaline is designed to trigger the liver to release extra glucose to boost blood sugar to avoid losing consciousness. But of course the adrenaline makes you feel like you’re having a panic attack.

The brain associates whatever is in your immediate environment with that feeling of fear, so whatever is going on at that time, you can develop a phobia for. I’ve worked with clients who had phobias form this way and ended up with driving phobias, elevator phobias and more.

Why does it look outward and create that association instead of just looking inward and saying, “I have low blood sugar so that’s why I feel this way?” Because we’re wired to have a fast response to external threats. If a tiger was really jumping out of the bush at you and your system took time to do an internal audit first, you might not escape the real threat. So the mind/body always assumes that an adrenaline response is due to something in the environment.

I also want to note that blood sugar drops are more likely when you’re not getting good enough sleep, so eat well and prioritize your sleep to avoid having this happen.

can you catch a fear?
Fears and phobias can be “contagious”

“Catching” a phobia

So what about my client’s question about her whole family having the same phobia?

This happens because of one of the ways the subconscious mind learns about the world. Usually this happens to us when we’re young and the mind is more impressionable.

One of the ways the subconscious learns is through authority – the underlying assumption being that, when you’re very young, the elders around you have more knowledge of the world than you do, so you can and should learn from them. So if you observe your Mom or Dad or a respected older sibling having a fear or phobia of something, then you can learn to also have that reaction.

Another way the subconscious mind learns is through repetition. So if you see that fearful response multiple times, that increases the chance of that response getting coded in you.

And yet another way the subconscious learns is through heightened emotion, which is likely to be present when someone’s having a fearful response to something.

An example, please?

Sure. A former client of mine had a phobia of heights form in this way.  When he was young he and his family would visit his aunt, who lived in a high rise apartment with a balcony.  As a young boy my client loved to go out on that balcony and play with his toy cars in the sunshine. He had done it many times, and had no concern about the height. He felt warm in the sun, he had some of his favorite toys, he felt safe and happy.

One day another relative came over while he was playing on the balcony. This relative happened to have a fear of heights, and seeing the young boy on the balcony triggered her fear.  She went out on the balcony screaming, “You’re going to die! Get inside! You’re going to die!” and physically dragged him into the apartment.

The combination of heightened emotion and authority of an elder family member was all it took for the phobia of heights to form in this boy. He had a life long phobia of heights and when he saw me was in his 40’s.

We released his phobia using hypnosis and NLP and he was pleased with the results. He even went on to try sky diving, to prove to himself that he had conquered his phobia!

So, no, fears and phobias can’t be inherited — but they CAN be “contagious!”

The good news is that however the fear or phobia formed, you can release your fear or phobia from it using the highly effective methods available using hypnosis and NLP. If you’re suffering from a fear or phobia that’s limiting your life, let’s set up a consultation and talk about releasing it.

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