Phobias come in all shapes and sizes and can range from the totally debilitating to the mildly upsetting. For example something like agoraphobia (literally meaning – fear of the market place) can eventually prevent someone form leaving the house whereas a fear of spiders may only be bothersome when there is a spider in the room!
The word phobia comes from the Greek word ‘phobos’ meaning fear. And today we regard a phobia as an unreasonable sort of fear that can cause avoidance and panic. Phobias are a relatively common type of anxiety disorder and can interfere with daily life sometimes forcing the person who suffers from it to restrict their lifestyle in order to avoid the feared object or place. The fear is often so strong that it induces enormous anxiety and this may lead to a full blown panic attack where the person ends up feeling like they are going to die. A panic attack is when someone experiences intense fear or dread and experiences physical symptoms like intense palpitations, hyperventilating, sweating, tingling, shaking, numbness, dizziness, nausea or feeling faint. These symptoms, when experienced, only serve to ‘embed’ the fear further as the person becomes desperate to avoid these terrifying feelings and the feared object, place or person.
- Agoraphobia – fear of open spaces.
- Arachnophobia – fear of spiders
- Claustrophobia – fear of small spaces
- Social phobia – fear of being with other people
- Ablutophobia – fear of washing or bathing
- Achluophobia – fear of darkness
So how does someone develop a phobia? Sometimes a phobia develops for quite understandable reasons. For example a child who is terrified of dogs may have once been set upon by an aggressive dog and this situation ‘generalises’ to all dogs. Other times children may learn a fear from their parents. For example a child may learn that lightning is dangerous when they see their mother scream and dive under the kitchen table during a storm. Or an intensely bumpy plane rid can lead to living dread of flying. Not everyone however has a ‘reason’ for the phobia that they can remember. But, whatever the cause of the phobia the mechanism and solution for it is the same.
A phobia develops as a result of an ‘over reaction’ of the brains ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. This powerful fight or flight response is very useful in a highly dangerous situation as it serves to kick start a response that may save our lives. For example, 10,000 years ago this response helped us survive if we were attacked by a wild tiger. Fight the tiger – run away and escape …or die! These were our only options! In this situation the ‘fight or flight’ response is initiated by a tiny part of our brain known as the amygdala which resides in our ‘emotional brain’. The amygdala recognizes the danger and initiates the release of a powerful physiological response which includes, increased heart rate, hyperventilation in order to increase oxygen supply, the release of adrenalin that makes us want to fight or flee and so on (notice the similarity to the feelings endured during a panic attack!). This response is immensely helpful in this situation. However, in a phobic response the amygdala interprets the feared object as dreadfully dangerous even when it is not and this initiates the fight or flight response. The persons body then gets into action ready to run away or fight BUT then nothing happens! In other words we don’t fight the spider, or get off the plane, or beat up the shadow that is scaring us so badly. This means that all the fight or flight hormones, hyperventilation, increased heart rate and so on end up giving the person a panic attack instead! And, every time this happens the person desperately wants to avoid it happening again! Hence avoiding the supermarket where the last panic attack took place or avoiding going through the woods where you were once attacked by a dog, or getting on that plane and so on.
So is there a cure for phobias?
The good news is that there is and it doesn’t take years of therapy to resolve either. In fact a long standing phobia can often be resolved in one or two sessions (although something like agoraphobia can sometimes take longer). In essence the goal of therapy is to get the person to imagine the feared object, situation or place in a very relaxed state and then to imagine themselves experiencing their phobia in a calm and relaxed way utilizing guided imagery. This method is known as the Rewind Technique in Human Givens therapy. This technique works because we understand how the brain works and what it needs to resolve the problem. We know that each time the amygdala sets off the fight or flight response it is ‘pattern matching’ to other times when we have experienced the phobic response. This technique in essence ‘uncouples the phobic reponse’ from the object so that the next time it is encountered the person can remain calm. If you can’t get to a therapy session there are other simple ways to help reduce a phobic response and these are listed below.
Tips to Reduce a phobic response.
- Learn a relaxation technique like slow breathing that can help you stay calm in a feared situation.
- Recognise that lots of people have phobias and you are not ‘abnormal’ for having one.
- Social phobia is common. One of the best solutions is to tell people you sometimes feel uncomfortable in public. The majority of people will understand and want to help you out. Often it is the fear of making a fool of yourself that stops you going out, telling a friend calms down your fear because someone already knows the way you feel.
- Avoiding the object of your fear only makes it worse! Aim to build up exposure slowly so that you can get used to it and realize its not really dangerous. For example, visit the airport a few times and watch planes land safely before going on your own flight. Or look at a tiny spider in a web before confronting a huge spider!
- Vize yourself in the feared situation. Imagining the scene where you see yourself coping can help you overcome the fear in the actual situation.
Louise Courtney is a Human Givens Therapist, Hypnotherapist and Nutritional Therapist (BA psychology, MA, MBA, HgDip P, ADHP, Dip Nutritional Therapy). Based in Kilcock and Maynooth, she works alongside Caroline Leonard (also a Givens Therapist) in their joint practice Effective Therapy. (Tel. 087 2332 500)