The only thing we have to fear is fear itself
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Franklin D. Roosevelt.
All phobias are just tricks of the imagination. While it’s good to have a healthy respect for dangerous animals or threatening situations, you have a right not to be frightened.
If you suffer from a phobia, you will no doubt recognise the feelings of fear and disgust that goes with it – the tightness in your chest, the butterflies in your stomach, your clammy hands and the perspiration on your brow. You can feel the blood drain from your face, your heartbeat increase and the surge of adrenalin shooting through your body as oxygen is diverted to muscles and your natural metabolism stops – all your attention and energy now ready for the battle ahead.
These are perfectly normal responses to the things or situations we are afraid of. In fact all these responses – and more – are symptoms of ‘fight or flight.’ They are nature’s way of preparing our bodies to run, or fight to defend ourselves.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. There is hope in the form of a range of therapies and techniques. The problem is, that your phobia is really a fear of a fear. In other words, the only thing to fear, is the fear itself. Let me explain…
The physical feelings associated with your phobia will recur every time you are confronted with whatever it is that triggers them – the spider, the holiday flight or the wiggly worm. This has happened so many times, you now expect the same physical feelings to play out every time – and you won’t be disappointed. That’s what your brain does – every time you see a spider, you remind yourself of how you felt last time, and the time before, and the time before that.
Believe it or not, this is normal. It’s part of your survival strategy, honed to perfection over millions of years. The question is, how to control it.
There are two kinds of phobias – those that are inherited and those that are learned. Phobias that are inherited may be written into our DNA and would include animal phobias such as spiders, snakes, rats, or mice. These instincts are evolutionary survival strategies that remind us to stay away from creatures that can bite or poison us.
Arachnophobia, one of the most common and crippling phobias, is a finely tuned response and survival mechanism, dating back to when we shared our environment with all sorts of truly dangerous creepy-crawlies, possibly as far as our early human evolution in Africa.
The same can be said of snakes, terrifying and unnatural looking sea creatures, or lions and tigers – in fact anything that doesn’t appear warm, soft and cuddly. In the case of rats and mice, they are often associated with disease and plague or with rotting food.
Even Agoraphobia – a fear of open spaces – is in all probability inherited. Early humans would not have enjoyed being lost in the open, without shelter and prone to attack by animals that would probably kill and eat you.
Phobias that are learned include fear of flying – a recent development because commercial aviation has only become widely available for less than 80 years (although less than 5% of the world’s population has ever been on an aeroplane.)
Children often learn phobias from their parents or from those they trust. Youngsters are very vulnerable to negative ideas, especially if those ideas are passed to them by authority figures.
Learned phobias can also be the result of unpleasant or negative experiences, possibly experienced earlier in life. Many people are afraid of flying because they found themselves in an aeroplane that happened to fly through severe turbulence – something they are designed for. Or… maybe they were pushed into a swimming pool or attacked by a vicious dog when they were young. All these kinds of events represent ‘peak experiences’ which will inevitably change attitudes and beliefs.
Hypnotherapy can usually help sufferers put things back into some form of perspective and get over their dread. I have found, having helped many clients to get over a range of phobias – including phobias of bananas, gloves, vomit and biscuits – that they all have at least one thing in common… deep down they know and understand that their fear is unreasonable. It usually takes me about an hour to sort it out.
In the meantime, and always on the lookout for new and better ways of doing things, I was attracted by the work of researchers at the Institute for the Developing Mind at Children’s Hospital, Los Angeles. Led by Dr Bradley Peterson and Dr Paul Siegel, they have begun testing a new technique to allow people who suffer from debilitating phobias based on ‘exposure therapy.’
Their initial study focused on 21 people with a fear of spiders, together with 21 non-phobic control subjects and involved showing patients images of the very things they live in fear of, but in such short bursts that they weren’t consciously aware of seeing them.
The researchers monitored the patient’s brain’s responses using fMRI scans while they ‘flashed’ the images. They observed activation of the neural regions that process fear but also saw activation in regions that regulate the emotional and behavioural responses to fear.
All the participants underwent separate tests that included viewing phobia-inducing images (spiders) control images not associated with phobias (flowers) and at two levels of exposure – very brief (without awareness) and longer duration (clearly visible.)
The very brief exposure to images was accomplished by way of a technique known as backward masking. This is unrelated to and different from the ‘subliminal messaging’ popular in the 1950’s and since proven to be nonsense. But in backward masking, a target image is shown very briefly and then immediately followed by a non-target image or ‘mask’ that prevents recognition of the target.
The fMRI scans showed that in participants with the spider phobia, very brief exposure to spider images strongly activated the subcortical regions of the brain involved in immediate fear processing. But they did not experience fear consciously, apparently because the very brief exposures also activated brain regions that regulate fear. This had the effect of reducing the conscious experience of fear.
However, exposure to the clearly visible spider images deactivated areas of the brain that regulate fear responses, inducing the conscious experience of fear.
Some therapies are based on directly confronting the feared stimulus, but this study shows that the brain is better able to deal with feared stimuli when they are presented without conscious awareness – that people may better face their fears if they are not consciously aware that they’ve faced them.
The researchers also believe their technique could be used to treat not only people with a range of phobias, but also children and adolescents who suffer from anxiety.
In the meantime, I’m now trying to think of a way of working this idea into my phobia cures.