You Can Conquer Your Phobia
By Dr Bryan Knight, MSW, PhD
Most fears are learned and of course some of these learnings are useful, e.g., the fear of touching a hot saucepan. Other fears appear to not be useful; such fears are considered irrational. We know them as phobias.
A phobia is an anxiety about a person, place or thing, which:
- is out of proportion to any actual danger
- cannot be reasoned or explained away
- appears silly to the sufferer, but cannot be voluntarily controlled
- leads to avoidance of what is feared.
A simple phobia, i.e., one which is focused on a single feared object such as spiders or computers, often has little impact on the patients quality of life and thus rarely calls for treatment. If you are terrified of the ocean but live in the mid-West, you may never have to face your fear; If you should see an ocean on television you can swiftly change the channel or look away.
'Dr S' is a surgeon who had a life-long phobia of cats and he was generally able to avoid contact with them. He would cross the street if he saw one of the dreaded creatures coming his way. He would steer away from stores, restaurants any places where he knew there would be a cat. In all other ways life was normal for Dr S.
Until the day his best friend excitedly reported over the phone that he’d brought home a pair of kittens for his daughter.
The surgeon began to make excuses not to visit the friend. This was very tricky, especially since their respective wives and children were also friends. Finally Dr S had to confess his fear of cats.
His friends could not understand but they valued their friendship enough to do as Dr S requested: before he came for a visit, they locked up the kittens, (now grown to full-sized cats) in the spare room.
After a while Dr S became more and more embarrassed about his phobia. His nine-year-old daughter Sofia also developed a fear of cats. This bothered her best friend who wanted Sofia to enjoy the cats as much as she did. Finally, Dr S decided to conquer his phobia. Feeling silly, but determined, he made an appointment with a hypnotherapist.
Dr S proved to have an excellent talent for hypnosis. Three sessions were all the hypnotherapist needed to help Dr S get over his fear.
The first session of hypnosis was used to uncover the cause of the doctor's phobia (at age four he had been badly mauled by a cat, something he had entirely forgotten); in the second session the hypnotherapist used behavioural techniques to enable the doctor to approach cats (in his imagination); the third session was devoted to supportive therapy with positive imaging and post-hypnotic suggestions. Dr S was encouraged to actually touch his friend's cats in real life. To his friend's delight, that is exactly what he did.
The doctor was ecstatic. And the cats were free to roam the house normally. But little Sofia was still scared. So her father brought her to the hypnotherapist. She was so responsive (children are usually excellent at hypnosis because of their rich fantasy lives of make-believe) that only one session was required to enable her to be as comfortable playing with the cats as was her friend.
Very often an unchecked phobia spreads to more and more situations. Thus the life of a phobic person becomes ever more constricted.
A germ phobia, for example, could ultimately lead to the phobic person existing in one highly-scrubbed room with a very restricted intake of (supposedly germ-free) food and drink.
Or a person might be phobic, for instance, of driving across a bridge. Then he becomes phobic of even looking at a photograph of a bridge, thence he avoids books with photographs of bridges and movies because there might be a bridge image, so he begins to avoid bookstores and movie houses. Then streets near bridges. Then highways because somewhere along their length they might include a bridge. And on and on...
If your life, like that of an estimated 16 million Americans, is restricted because you're too anxious to drive, or to fly in a plane, or to take an elevator, or to lie on a beach, or to wash your hair, or to enter a restaurant, or to use a public toilet, or to undergo surgery, or to pick up a telephone, or to shake hands with a stranger, or to even leave your home, you know what misery and frustration a phobia can cause.
Drugs can certainly calm you down, perhaps sedate you enough so you can drag yourself onto that plane, or across the bridge. But beneath the chemical calm, the fear lives on.
However, with hypnosis, you can remove the fear forever.
There are two kinds of phobias: purposeless and purposeful.
These are learned. They start with: trauma, or teaching.
The case of Dr S is an example of a phobia which arose from a trauma (being attacked by a cat). His daughter Sofia's case is an example of a phobia which arose from teaching (her father's example taught her to fear cats).
Purposeless phobias succumb quickly to hypnotherapy.
When the cause is known (e.g., having been trapped in an elevator) the client is taught to relax while imagining similar -- but now positive and self-controlled -- scenes to what really happened.
If the cause is not known, then hypnosis is first used to uncover the reason.
Behavioural techniques are employed to conquer a purposeless phobia that has been learned by someone teaching (“modelling” is the term used by therapists) the client, as in the case of Sofia. This means that while the client is in hypnosis she is gradually exposed to the feared object. This is, of course, in the client’s imagination. Then the client is encouraged to face the fear in real life.
To cure any kind of phobia requires a change in the thinking of the phobic.
Negative self-hypnosis has reinforced the phobia, sometimes over many years. For example, “If I enter the swimming pool I’ll faint and drown. Probably the chlorine in the water is poisonous and in any case the water’s bound to be too hot [too cold, too crowded, too deep . . .”.
Such irrational thoughts are replaced in therapy by rational thoughts. The more positive, the better. For example, “I’ve swum safely in the pool before. There is an alert lifeguard. I am an excellent swimmer.”
The most widespread phobia is fear of public speaking. Perhaps this phobia is so common because most of us are brought up to blend in, to conform. When called upon to give a speech, we are thrust into the limelight: perhaps we will not measure up, perhaps we won’t be liked!
[For more on conquering this particular fear, read “Change Your Life with Hypnotherapy” and “Hypnosis and Social Phobia”]
These are paradoxical. Their purpose is to divert attention from a psychological conflict within a person. Yet their presence is a clear sign that conflict exists.
The inner conflict may or may not be consciously known to the sufferer.
The phobia acts as a diversion. While you concentrate on your fear of whatever, you are diverted from something else which some part of you considers too terrifying to look at.
Purposeful phobias are usually mechanisms to avoid issues of betrayal, abandonment, non-acceptance. Unlike purposeless phobias, there are often secondary gains for the phobic. These commonly involve attention, exemption, and control.
Attention to the phobic (“poor little Jamie; he doesn’t feel well enough to go to school, let’s tuck him up in bed and give him his favourite candy”) brings the secondary reward of comfort, of being the centre of consideration.
Exemption brings secondary rewards of freedom from responsibility (“Be nice to Harry; you know he doesn’t drive, why can’t you give him a ride, it’s only a few blocks out of your way”).
Control is the key to the cause and the conquering of phobias.
- fear of loss of control
- control of other people through helplessness
- control of overt fear through avoidance
- control of deeper fear or inner conflict.
Control by Jamie and Harry is partly conscious, partly subconscious. They enjoy control of family members, as demonstrated by the attention and exemption. At the same time they exercise a degree of control over their fear (of school, or of driving). In addition, there is the subconscious control over whatever is being avoided by the focus on the phobia.
Sometimes the feared situation has an element within it which provided the seed of fear; more often the feared situation has no discernible roots to the deeper, avoided fear.
Jamie, for instance, may be terrified of leaving home, and Mom: if he goes to school perhaps that means Mom wants to be rid of him, maybe she won’t be there when he comes home. So it is not school which scares Jamie; it’s being abandoned by Mom.
Likewise, Harry may be scared of independence, of all that is symbolised in our society by the automobile. It may seem safer to Harry to avoid the test of being grown up.
Both Jamie and Harry, of course, are unaware of these underground emotions: their conscious minds are aware only of their respective fear of school and disinterest in driving.
Bryan M. Knight, MSW, PhD
Author: "Health and Happiness with Hypnosis" http://www.hypnosisdepot.com "Bringing solutions to mind" Tel: 514-332-7902. Leave message and I'll call back within 24 hours.
Sherbrooke West, Montreal, QC, Canada, H4B 1R7