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  • Writer's pictureMellissa Hamley

Phobias, and how counselling can help

What is a phobia?

The Oxford dictionary defines a phobia as: “An extreme or irrational fear of, or aversion to, something.”

As the NHS says, they are “more pronounced than fear. They develop when a person has an exaggerated or unrealistic sense of danger about a situation or object.”

So, what does this actually mean? When we think about phobias, a common one is fear of spiders. Here in the UK, it is generally safe to assume that a spider can cause us no harm. The logical part of our brain knows that the fear we have about them, is irrational, but yet many people will still find the urge to run from the room on seeing one.

A phobia is actually a type of anxiety disorder. Whilst you may not feel or experience any symptoms until faced with your phobia, it can become an issue when someone will feel anxious at the mere thought of their phobia. This can interrupt their normal day to day life, particularly if they find themselves avoiding certain situations, just in case they are faced with their phobia. This can cause a lot of distress as well as restricting people’s lives.

Many phobias can be classified as acute fears. Some different types are:

  • Simple Phobias – Fears of a single stimulus such as heights

  • Complex Phobias – Fears of a number of stimuli (e.g. fear of boats may be a fear of drowning & losing control)

  • Social Phobias – Fears of what may happen when you are in the company of others (blushing/losing self-control)

  • Agoraphobia – Fear of the ‘open marketplace’.

Where do phobias come from?

It is generally believed that we are born with 2 phobias, falling and loud noises. The belief is that they were designed as a way of keeping us safe, by alerting us to danger. This is where the idea of having a healthy respect of fear can come from, as fear can help keep us safe.

Some of you may already be aware of the term conditioning. Watson & Rayner (1920) showed how a phobia can be created using classical conditioning in what is called the Little Albert Experiment. They controversially tested on Little Albert who was a 9-month-old child. He was shown various objects, such as a rat, cotton wool, a monkey, and his reactions were tested for baselines. They then proceeded to bang a steel bar behind his head every time they presented the white rat to him. The sudden loud noise would cause him to burst into tears. After time he would cry and try to crawl away when he saw the rat alone. In addition, Little Albert developed phobias of objects with similar characteristics, such as the family dog and a fur coat. This process is known as generalisation. (McLeod, 2008)

Similarly, imagine if a parent or care-giver, ran from the room any time there was a spider. You will be learning that a spider is something to be feared, and will eventually respond in the same way.

If you have a particularly distressing experience, you may find that you develop a phobia of that experience afterwards. But you also might find that the phobia escalates into something more. As an example, imagine that you fell over in a supermarket and the experience left you feeling incredibly embarrassed. You may find that the next time you have to go to the supermarket you are a little bit anxious, just in case you fall again. What may then happen, is that you start to avoid going to that supermarket as a preventative measure. Over time, you may avoid going anywhere at all, because in theory you could fall anywhere. Eventually, that experience of falling over could have morphed into agoraphobia and is impacting your life in a lot of different ways.

What can help with a phobia?

The first thing I would do would be to gain an understanding of what your phobia is, and how it is impacting on your life. I would help you explore it to see if we could identify where it originated from, as that can often be helpful for people. This might take some digging, as sometimes it’s not always obvious.

From then I may help you look at different relaxation techniques, depending on the times that your phobia is causing issues. The reason for this is to help retrain your brain in understanding that this thing is no longer something to be feared. If your brain has kicked into fight or flight mode, then it can sometimes be difficult to challenge it’s thinking, as the logical thinking side of our brain has switched off. Therefore, sometimes, a good way of achieving this is through relaxing the body. You can’t fight a lion if you’re relaxed after all.

There are some techniques from hypnotherapy that can also be beneficial, working alongside other talking therapies. Some of these are:

The Rewind Technique, reprogramming and flooding (an exposure type of therapy) are 3 such examples, although some of these can be done without the element of hypnotherapy for those who don’t want to take part in that.

Finally, sometimes it can be using some elements of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, in that we can find ways to challenge the thoughts that go alongside the phobia.

If you want to explore this more with me, please reach out and see how I can help.

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