Anatomy of a Phobia

Many people come to see me seeking help in overcoming phobias; I have worked with a wide range of phobias, some of which may sound unusual, but which have caused very real difficulties for the person affected.  A true phobia can be extremely debilitating,  and so severe in some cases that the sufferer cannot leave the house without fear of encountering a situation that they believe will not be able to deal with.

Firstly, I’d like to talk about the difference between a fear and a phobia.  They are very similar, but one way to tell if you are truly phobic about something is if no amount of encouragement, compensation or gain would induce you to face up to it. For example, if you have a phobia of spiders – would you touch a spider in return for £1 million?  If the answer is yes, that it would be very difficult, but you would do it for that amount of money (or perhaps more),  then you are probably not truly phobic about spiders, but you have a fear.  True phobics will go to any lengths to avoid the object of their phobia, which may lead them to sabotage important things in their life, such as relationships or jobs.   Someone with a phobia will often also have difficulties with anything that reminds them of their phobia,  or has some sort of association with it.  Strong fears can be equally debilitating, and can be treated in the same way, though there may be other aspects to consider.

So, why do we get phobias?  The Limbic system of the brain plays a very important role. The Limbic system comprises several different parts of the brain that control memory and responses.   The amygdala is part of the Limbic system, that is located deep within the brain and is the part that processes unconscious memory and emotional reactions.  Our memories of traumatic situations are laid down from a young age, exactly as they are perceived at the time – often through a child’s eyes.  As young children we may experience traumatic events or experiences, or our young minds may perceive a situation to be more dangerous or threatening than it really is, or we may witness an adult behaving in a fearful way in response to something (such as our mother screaming at the sight of a spider).  These may be called Traumatic Learning Situations and they become imprinted on our emotional memory as well as on our cognitive memory.  Our cognitive memory – processed largely by the Hippocampus, another part of the Limbic system – remembers the facts of an event or situation; our emotional memory recalls the emotions, feelings and bodily responses.  In particular it is highly sensitive to the memory of danger.  In fact, the amygdala is largely responsible for triggering our Fight, Flight or Freeze survival instincts.  One of the amygdala’s jobs is to keep us safe – to store a memory of what is dangerous, so that we can react to it rapidly if it happens again. The amygdala and the Hippocampus work very well together in normal circumstances – the amygdala will pass information about danger to the Hippocampus, which will trigger an appropriate, logical response.  However sometimes the amygdala decides that there is no time to get the Hippocampus involved.  The amygdala system responds extremely quickly – within fractions of a millisecond – to danger signals and it does so unconsciously.  Therefore, any sign of a previously encountered traumatic learning situation can cause the amygdala to trigger an instant response, without any conscious thought process taking place.  So, literally before we have time to think about it, our unconscious memory and our body may respond to a situation that the amygdala believes is dangerous or threatening.

Therefore, it is understandable that if a child has had a traumatic experience, or has frequently witnesses its parent responding fearfully to something, or is repeatedly told that something is dangerous, they may create unconscious and emotional memories that programme their amygdala to  believe that the thing must be avoided.  And often a phobia will be the result. No amount of rational thinking seems to help the sufferer to “unlearn” those emotional memories or responses.  Often my clients know that their phobia is irrational, they often tell me that it’s “silly”.  And of course, emotional memories do not have to be laid down in childhood.  It is entirely possible, and indeed common,  to encounter traumatic learning situations as adults that leave emotional memory imprints that may cause unconscious responses if they are triggered again.

Phobias are often described as irrational reactions to rational fears or situations.  For example, it is entirely rational to have some apprehension about flying – even about driving a car.  If we had no rational apprehension about situations where an element of danger does exist, we would be in trouble.  Apprehension makes us behave more cautiously and keeps us safe.  However, if our reactions become too extreme, then they may be considered irrational.

So how can we combat phobias?  Both hypnotherapy and NLP provide tools for ‘reprogramming’ thought processes so that the brain can process emotional responses more logically when confronted with the object of fear.   If you  know the source of your phobia or fear (the first time it happened or what caused it) this is helpful, but even if you don’t a good therapist can help you to uncover what may be triggering your responses and also to manage those responses better.

For me, there is little that is more rewarding than helping someone to shake off a fear or a phobia that has been holding them back,  sometimes for years.  The joy of feeling that they are back in control can be so liberating.

Please contact me if you are coping with a fear or phobia, no matter what it is.  I offer a completely confidential service and would be happy to advise you in a free initial consultation.

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