Have you ever been in a group of people discussing your various phobias?
Have you ever been in a group of people discussing your various phobias? It may go a little like this: “Ooh, you wouldn’t get me anywhere near a spider/cliff-edge/aeroplane,” etc. For some, it’s simply a shuddery feeling they get when they think of such a thing whereas others may have altered their lives drastically in order to rule out any possibility of such contact.
The dictionary definition of a phobia is ‘an abnormal fear,’ which is perhaps why the phrase is a little overused; after all, what is normal? To a therapist, a true phobia might mean avoidance of the phobic situation at ALL costs – non-negotiable. Even to bribe someone with a million pounds would be pointless because in order to benefit, they would have to believe they could survive the experience.
So if this means that your phobia has just been downgraded to a fear then you can celebrate – it could be much easier to resolve. Saying that, some people are quite happy to have their fear left intact as they see it as protecting them from potential harm. This may be an inbuilt defence from many years of evolution to keep us away from deadly situations. Unfortunately, evolution has yet to catch up with our modern way of life and our instinctive reactions are somewhat dated and incongruous. Clearly, if you live in Britain and suffer from a fear of scorpions, it’s unlikely to affect your day-to-day life. Imagine though, having to avoid water or certain people or even germs that cannot be seen by the naked eye. It can be exhausting. Added to this is often the fear of one’s reaction to the stimulus. The thought of not being able to cope if the situation arises can be worse than the original fear. While you are panicking at coming into contact with a snake, you might feel more vulnerable to attack because your reaction gives the snake the advantage. If you can’t bear confined spaces, you might worry that hyperventilating (and using up all the oxygen) will make things worse, etc.
So often the problem escalates when the person fears their reaction to the stimulus perhaps more than the stimulus itself. This can lead to obsessive thoughts about the feared situation and a constant search for indications that it’s happening. Thus this thinking pattern can become a way of life. The original cause of the fear could be long forgotten and yet the phobia is feeding itself. Because phobias encourage avoidance, they rarely allow us to stop and reassess the object of such fear. We keep running, imagining the ‘monster’ chasing us is getting bigger and bigger. It’s not until we look properly at the source of our original fear that we find it is far less scary than we realised.
One way to work through the irrational fear response is using systematic desensitisation. This can involve you deciding on a hierarchy of situations that you find uncomfortable through to unbearable. Starting with the ‘easiest’ first, you learn relaxation techniques and gradually work your way up the list, relaxing and getting comfortable with each scenario before moving on to the next. Amazingly, you can progress to the ‘unbearable’ stuff in a short space of time, often in just one session. Because you can’t be relaxed and anxious at the same time, the pattern of your reactions is broken and replaced with a more desirable one.
A powerful alternative method is to regress in your subconscious mind back to the time when you first felt the fear and then work through the experience using various techniques to reframe your interpretation of the event. This is something that would require a therapist’s guidance as it’s unlikely that you would successfully reach that memory and relive it appropriately on your own – after all, the symptom you have was created to protect you from that very thing! With the help of a skilled therapist though, the locked up emotions can be discharged, leaving you feeling almost indifferent to the very same thing that had you running and screaming before.