by Ian Sherred
People, it seems, can be phobic of just about anything and everything, as any internet search will tell you. Lists of phobias are often presented in a slightly voyeuristic, isn’t-that-weird sort of way. Yet for those who actually suffer from phobias, there is much more to it than odd entertainment value or material for pub trivia quizzes. Phobia sufferers are, literally, in fear of their lives.
So what exactly is a phobia? The dictionary will define it as an irrational fear of an object or circumstance. The important word there is irrational, since fear is sometimes perfectly rational. If you’re confronted with an angry lion or a charging rhinoceros, you’re probably well advised to be afraid. That’s useful information that you’re in mortal peril, and you should remove yourself from danger as quickly as possible. Our instincts take care of that for us – the so-called fight or flight response.
Our distant ancestors faced literal life or death struggles on a daily basis. Imagine that one of these ancestors is ambushed by a lion in tall grass. If they escape, then they’ve learned something from the experience – that the rustling of tall grass, for instance, can signal danger. From then on, the rustling of tall grass will trigger an instinctive fear response, preparing the body for fight or flight.
The learned fear response is inexact. It has to be, since it would make no sense, in survival terms, if the precise conditions of the initial attack had to be duplicated before the instincts kick in. So anything which even remotely resembles, or was even tentatively connected with, the initial attack can become a trigger for the fear instinct. In the case of our distant ancestor, any rustling movement might be enough to set the instincts in motion.
It’s important to stress that all this takes place on an unconscious level. Rational thought doesn’t get a look in at such times. It can’t, because the instincts are there to keep you alive, and in the world in which modern humans evolved, standing around thinking about things would get you killed pretty quickly.
These days, thankfully, we rarely face genuine life or death situations. However, the development of our society scarcely even registers on the evolutionary scale. Our instincts haven’t caught up yet, and they’re still doing their job of keeping us alive, in much the same way they did hundreds of thousands of years ago.
So learning how to be afraid is an important ancient survival mechanism. It’s just that the phobia sufferer has learned to be afraid of the wrong thing. It’s a vicious circle too, since every time the sufferer has a phobic experience, it reinforces the idea that the object or circumstance is something to be afraid of. We can also see the inexact nature of learned fear at work. Somebody who is claustrophobic, for example, might have their first phobic episode in a lift, and then another one in a small crowded room, since it resembles a lift in broad enough detail to activate the fear pattern.
The symptoms of phobias – racing heart, hyperventilation and so on – are caused by the fight-or-flight mechanism flooding the body with adrenaline.
A modern analogy would be an email that arrives marked “HIGHLY URGENT”, when really it’s just to tell you that the sandwich lady is in reception (although some people might regard that as urgent of course!). There are many ways to cure phobias, but they all work on the same principle, which is to file that incoming email correctly – in other words, to remove the unconscious fear pattern. Hypnotherapy is particularly effective, since it deals directly with the unconscious.
One of the fastest, and safest, ways to cure phobias is the Rewind Technique. This is a refined version of an NLP technique, and is remarkably effective – even severe lifelong phobias can be cured using this method, often in just one session. The practitioner will use hypnosis to relax the phobic client and ensure that they are feeling safe, before guiding them through a series of steps designed to “rewind” phobic episodes in the imagination. There is no in-depth exploration of distressing memories – this can be positively harmful, since it just reinforces the fear response. Indeed, the practitioner doesn’t need to know any details at all. For this reason, it is also a very respectful and effective way to treat those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or panic attacks.
A video of the technique in action can be found at http://www.rewindtechnique.com/ , where it’s used to treat a man with a phobia of snakes. The site also contains helpful information on where to find therapists trained in the technique
Phobias are never necessary – they cause distress, drain energy and stop people living full lives. Nobody should have to live with them.