As long as I can remember, my mother had an irrational fear of bridges. It became my problem when I needed a ride over the causeway to get to the beach in my Florida town. No amount of whining or complaining — even begging or pleading for that matter — could convince her to leave her fear in the rear view mirror.
Fast forward a couple dozen years. I’m now a middle aged woman, casually driving over a bridge near my home when panic took the wheel. My eyes blurred, I started sweating, and I gripped the steering wheel like my life depended on it. It took a minute before I realized I was in the throes of a full-blown panic attack.
And that was the day I became someone who had a fear of bridges.
Coincidence? I don’t think so. And in the years since, I have pondered this question: are phobias inherited?
Turns out there is quite a bit of research on a potential link between phobias and families. And it seems to show that your fears may be rooted in your genetics — or at least passed down from parents.
First, it’s worth noting the distinction between fear and phobia. A fear is a negative feeling about something, like spiders for example. You may find them creepy, but you can manage that fear by avoiding spiders. It becomes a phobia if you an overwhelming or irrational fear about spiders — even when there is no spider in sight. The thought of your ‘trigger,’ whatever that may be, is intense enough to cause extreme anxiety. A phobia can cause both a physical and psychological reaction.
Repeated studies, looking at the topic in various ways, point to a family predisposition to phobias. Research involving twins who are raised separately have a higher-than-average rate of developing similar phobias. That particular study looked at 21 different phobic stimuli in hopes of discovering a common genetic factor. Some of the stimuli included agoraphobia (public spaces), acrophobia (heights), animal phobia, blood-injection-illness phobia, and claustrophobia (small spaces).
After conducting more than 4000 interviews, researchers concluded that some, but not all, phobias share some sort of family predisposition. Meaning first-degree relatives of phobia sufferers are more likely to develop a phobia. Many people believe phobias are influenced by a genetic vulnerability that is passed down from one generation to the other.
It’s fairly clear, though, that most phobias are likely a mix of environmental or learned behaviors along with a family predisposition. The classic nature vs. nurture manifestation.
If there is a silver lining in any of this for me, this is it: 15%- 20% of us will experience a specific phobia at least once in a lifetime. So misery loves company, as long as we don’t meet up on a bridge.