A Cure for Phobias
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Paul Schofield MBACP (Accred) BACPRCP.
10th August, 20130 Comments
A phobia is “any uncontrolled, persistent, irrational fear that is accompanied by a compelling desire to avoid the object, activity, or situation that provokes the fear” (Human Givens Institute).
How is it that human beings are prone to developing phobias, and why is it that a phobia can range from flying and spiders through to a fear of buttons?
It would be quite normal for a person to be afraid, for example if they came face to face with a wild lion on the savannah, because there is obviously the risk of being eaten alive. Similarly, the same would apply with a venomous snake, or a deadly spider.
But phobias can turn any fears (whether rational or not) into threats to our survival.
This is due to an instinctive, primitive but necessary survival mechanism in all of us; often referred to as ‘fight or flight’. This relates back to thousands of years ago when life threatening situations were much more common, such as being eaten alive by a carnivorous animal. In such situations we had to react instantly to such a threat and our bodies responded accordingly.
The fight or flight mechanism completely overrides rational thought. If you’re phobic of mice, it doesn’t matter that you may rationally know a mouse won’t kill you; your rational brain has been hijacked by the instinctive responses of the emotional brain. It has to do this, because when a threat is truly real, there’s no time to stand around rationally debating whether or not to run, you just have to RUN, or FIGHT!
So when we imagine, or experience the object of our particular phobia, it’s this fight or flight mechanism that gets triggered in our brain, in a part called the Amygdala. The brain is essentially a ‘pattern matching’ organ, in that our whole understanding of the world around us is based upon the brain recognising ‘patterns’ in the environment. If you had never seen a door before, you wouldn’t know what it was, but your brain has learned to recognise the ’pattern’ of the door, or a person, or a cloud, or anything else that you recognise as familiar.
If we have a rat phobia, for example, the brain’s Amygdala recognises the pattern of a rat, and sets off an alarm bell which says THREAT! Our body then goes into overdrive. Hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released into our system, priming our muscles for action. Our blood pressure rises, our pupils dilate to take in more information, our palms sweat (to help us to climb out of harm’s way better), and we may feel sick (possibly to put off prey, or to make us lighter to run faster).
These physiological symptoms of our survival mechanism are what we experience as panic, or a panic attack, when we come across our particular phobia.
How we ‘learn’ our phobia
But how does a person develop a phobia in the first place?
There are two ways this can happen:
1. Through direct experience. We all know how easy it can be to ‘jump’ with fright when something unexpected happens, such as stepping into a road and not seeing the cyclist speeding past, or when a spider scuttles across the floor in our peripheral vision. This ‘startle response’ can then tip over into panic, and the pattern of this fearful experience is then memorised by the Amygdala as being dangerous to life and limb.
Thereafter, similar circumstances (e.g. other sightings of spiders or mice, or even just imagining them) triggers this danger memory in the Amygdala. As far as the Amygdala is concerned, it’s just as though the original incident were happening all over again, and off go the alarm bells.
Similarly, a button phobia might develop at an early age, for example, when grandma suddenly leans over the child’s pram and the child jumps, is startled, and in that moment sees large buttons on grandmas’ top; the buttons then become ‘tagged’, linked with the fright in the Amygdala’s memory banks. All subsequent experiences of buttons then provoke a phobic response.
2. We can also learn a phobia from people close to us. If a parent has a phobia, we can take on the message from them that the object of their particular phobia is dangerous, and again, the Amygdala stores that information.
The mechanism is the same for any traumatic memory, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is essentially a phobic response to a particular traumatic memory – indeed, phobias and PTSD involve the same neuronal pathways in the brain.
Help is at hand – The Rewind Technique
There is a very effective technique for dealing with all phobias and traumatic memories, called The Rewind Technique, which is a relaxing, non-traumatising guided visualisation technique. It works by ‘de-conditioning’ the alarm response of the Amygdala in relation to the phobia, by taking the emotional sting out of the memory/experience. It is also helpful for conditions such as OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).
This can be done in as little as one, sometimes two sessions and it has been shown to be more effective than other interventions such as CBT.
So if you have a phobia or troubling memories which you would like to tackle, why not contact a Counsellor?
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