Phobias – the most common form of anxiety

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Fearful man covering his eyes

It is estimated that around 10 million people in the UK has a phobia, that is, more than one person in every seven. Some phobias are simple and some are complex. For some people a phobia is a slight annoyance; for others it dominates every aspect of their lives.

What is a phobia?

A phobia is an irrational fear of something. Someone with arachnophobia will feel an uncontrollable fear and anxiety when they see a spider. There is no rational reason for this fear; the spider is almost always harmless, but even so, the fear is real.

Some phobias are simple. The simple (albeit irrational) fear that comes over them when they see something: spiders, frogs, cows, birds, clowns, lightening and so on. Other phobias are to do with doing something – a fear of flying, having a vaccination, going to a hospital, talking on a phone, vomiting and so on. And then there are the more complex phobias such as fear of going to somewhere new, or fear of social occasions.

Almost anything can be the subject of phobias. Some unusual ones that have been recorded include a fear of belly buttons, string, mirrors and peanut butter (and almost anything you can think of).

What is the phobic reaction?

When someone with a phobia encounters the object of their fear, they experience genuine fear – that is, the same fear that you would have if your life was in danger. It is usually a totally irrational fear, and so many phobics are often embarrassed by their reaction. It is embarrassing because it is irrational and because the people around them are not fearful.

Where do phobias come from?

Many people like to know where their phobia comes from. Knowing this helps them rationalise why they have the fear, and it helps them explain it to others.

Some phobias are picked up in childhood by the young developing brain as it learns by copying reactions from the parents. If one or both of the parents have a phobia of spiders, say, the child may well pick up on that fear (quite unconsciously) and develop a similar phobia themselves.

Other phobias are developed by a single incident. For example, if a child is by a pond looking at the frogs and falls in, then mother rushes over panicking and drags the child out, then the child picks up on the mother’s fear and associates it with the frog, and so develops a phobia of frogs.

What happens inside the brain of a phobic?

Within the brain, fear is created by the fight-flight-freeze centre – the amygdala. The amygdala is a very primitive part of the brain. It is not clever and is incapable of working out what fears are rational and what are not. Nor is it capable of coming up with a different reaction. All the amygdala does is check what it did last time it the person encountered a spider / frog / needle etc and to repeat it.

The amygdala’s fear response overrides the rational response. The thinking part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) finds it upsetting that it experiences fear when logically there is nothing to fear – and in some people, the prefrontal cortex starts to make up stories to rationalise the fear, even though the story may also be nonsense. For example, someone with a fear of birds could start to believe that the birds are plotting against them.

How do you fix a phobia?

Like all mental health issues, a phobia is only a problem if it’s a problem. Many phobics live quite normal lives except for an occasional hit of anxiety when they see the object of their fear. If this does not happen often; if they can live with it, then it’s not a problem.

If it’s a small problem, then you could just wait and see if you grow out of it. Older people are less likely to have phobias, telling us that a lot of people with phobias when they were young grew out of them.

If you have a phobia that really effects your life badly (and believe me, some phobias can be devastating), then you should consider therapy. Two common forms of therapy that treat phobias are Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CPD) and Hypnotherapy.

Phobias are quite fixable, and you can get treatment that will lead to the fear going away completely or at least reducing by a point where it become tolerable.

What happens during CPD treatment of phobias?

The CPD treatment of a phobia is likely to include gradual exposure to the object of fear. For example, the arachnophobic may first be shown a picture of a spider from a long way off for a brief second. Once they can tolerate that, the picture will be shown for longer and a bit nearer. Once that is tolerated, they move on to watching a video of a spider, and so on. Each time getting closer to being able to tolerate a real live spider in close proximity.

What happens during hypnotherapy treatment of phobias?

In a hypnotherapy treatment of phobias, the hypnotherapist will spend some time just talking to you – getting to know you and allowing you to get used to them. They may ask you to talk about your phobia, but don’t be surprised if they discuss other things too. Then they will lead you into a relaxing trance and ask you to imagine things. They will ask you to imagine some fantasy – some might say farcical – events involving the object of your fear, in a way that is calm and relaxed – even comical.

If you have a phobia that is dominating your life and you want help dealing with it, you might like to consider contacting me. My hypnotherapy clinic is in Fleet in Hampshire.

Photo by Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash

Tim Maude

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