The First Steps to Overcoming Fear
What is a phobia?
A phobia is not simply a fear of something, it is the result of a threat response by your amygdala (reptilian brain) that is triggered by a stimulus from the world outside of you. The reason it is different from being afraid is that if you have a phobic response to something you will believe, however irrational, that you will die! Hence your huge reaction to the stimulus.
You will feel as if you are about to die or be killed. Yes, that sounds very dramatic but if you suffer from a phobic response that is exactly how it may feel for you.
For example, if you were phobic of spiders and you saw a small spider that was perfectly harmless to the rest of the world, to you it would appear huge inside your mind and your anxiety and stress levels would go through the roof. You may have friends or a loved one telling you that it’s okay but that will not appease or sooth you. As soon as the amygdala has kicked in you now have an adrenaline cocktail coursing through your veins and this must ebb away before you can feel comfortable again.
Another way of looking at it is to think of it as one-stop learning. You incur one experience, your brain learns to panic and then your brain generalises this through time and space. Thus if you have a phobia of a snake a piece of garden hosepipe can cause you to jump!
Breaking this into four stages
- The context or event
- The meaning that you give the event. “It could have killed me!”
- Your brain is imprinted with the pattern
- The whole process leaves you unable to escape.
Lots of people have fears but they may not necessarily be phobias. If you think about it as something you don’t like but you can put up with, then it’s a fear. If it is something that fills you with instant dread and you will not be open to any rational conversation whilst you are in it, then it’s a phobia. Some people may even put their lives on hold as they live under the shadow of the onset of a phobic attack.
What are the symptoms of a phobic response?
The symptoms of a phobic response are basically extreme anxiety and panic when the stimulus or trigger is near you. If your phobic response is very intense you may be able to produce a full blown reaction by just thinking about it.
Phobic symptoms include:
- Feeling faint, lightheaded or dizzy as your blood circulation increases and your blood pressure rises.
- Mouth goes dry – the salivary glands constrict blood vessels.
- Neuroendocrine system releases a huge amount of energy into the body.
- Liver releases extra sugar for energy.
- Feeling unable to breathe as adrenal glands release adrenaline
- Pains in your chest or a tightness in your chest
- The feeling of a heart attack as your heart pounds faster and harder, coronary arteries dilate.
- Your body may start sweating, palms, scalp, etc., to keep your body cool
- Kidney, large intestine and bladder slow down. You may feel that you need the toilet: Your body is “lightening the load”.
- Feeling sick or nauseous as your stomach and small intestines reduce activity.
- Trembling and shaking uncontrollably as your lungs take in more O2 and release more CO2.
- Tingling or numb sensations as your muscles tense for action.
- Brain activity changes: your cognitive function becomes more instinctively driven. Detached from reality, as if you are viewing from inside a bubble.
Signs that a fear is controlling your life
If you or a friend of yours has a phobia a sure fire way of noticing if it is controlling their life or yours is by realising the things or contexts that they or you will avoid. For example, a person with a phobia of balloons will avoid parties or social gatherings. This is because there may be a balloon at the party, which would cause them to panic in front of others, making them feel embarrassed. The embarrassment threatens their social status so they won’t go to the party.
Or, they may not want to eat in front of others or indeed eat much at all, these are all telltale signs that the phobia is controlling their life.
All of this can then lead on to a social phobia. This is because your mind generalises outward to different contexts where fear may be waiting for you, if not nipped in the bud, you can end up afraid to go outside, meet people or even go out of the house!
The Top 10 UK Phobias
- socialphobia: phobia of interacting with other people
- agoraphobia: phobia of open public spaces
- emetophobia: phobia of vomiting
- erythrophobia: phobia of blushing
- driving phobia: phobia of driving
- hypochondria: phobia of illness
- aerophobia: phobia of flying
- arachnophobia: phobia of spiders
- zoophobia: phobia of animals
- claustrophobia: phobia of confined spaces
How many types of fear are there?
Although there are many, many phobias out there, it is easier to describe them as specific fears or complex phobias.
A Specific Fear
Specific phobia begins when you are a child you may be sitting happily playing with a worm or spider or even a button when a caregiver has panicked and grabbed you, the caregivers phobia in the situation is what your system picks up on and this plants the seed of your fear, so the next time you see a worm, spider or button, your brain fires an amygdala response.
Some of the common phobias that you may have heard of:
- Birds, creatures, and animals like cats, dogs, mice, spiders, snakes
- Body-based – injections, swallowing certain food, blood, vomit
- Environmental – water, thunder storms, heights, the dark, dirt
- Sexual – intimacy, nudity, transfer of fluids
- Situational – flying, doctors, dentist, Circus clowns, tunnels, bridges
Some people are able to grow out of these severe reactions naturally, whilst others need to seek professional help.
A Complex Fear
A complex fear is when a specific fear has spread or generalised to other contexts and other situations, leaving you a prisoner to your house or even your bed.
For example, a person might have a fear of public speaking (glossophobia) and the phobia grows to such a level that the person fears being in groups of people (Koinoniphobia) this can then develop into an intense phobia of public places (agoraphobia). The sufferer may then be so debilitated by their condition that they have to stay at home. As their world closes down and gets smaller and smaller they may then cultivate a phobia of meeting other people (anthropophobia). As you can see this can become very complex.
A Rational Approach to Curing Phobias
Phobias are highly irrational and even when a sufferer rationalises how crazy it is to have their phobic problem, they still fall into the same pattern over and over again. If you first figure out which modality or sense you have your phobic response in? Then you are on your way to reducing it.
Visual – snails, mice, flies, rats, birds, spiders, heights, open spaces, enclosed spaces, flying, the dark, buttons, etc.,
Auditory -thunder, balloons, guns, fireworks, fire crackers, chalk on a blackboard, basically anything that goes bang! Makes a loud noise or screech!
Kinaesthetic – emotion, feelings in the body, texture, wool, nylon, movement, balance, temperature, pressure
Olfactory – Autodysomophobia or Olfactory Reference Syndrome is where a person believes that they are emitting a foul smell or stench. This can drive a person to leave their job and their relationships as they imagine that they smell so bad that no one could ever be near them.
Gustatory – Geumophobia or gustatory agnosia, a fear of unfamiliar tastes or flavours. This is where a person imagines that food has no taste or tastes rancid. This can spread to the sense of smell too. Swallowing and eating certain foods can become a huge problem. The throat will become dry and the airways may become restricted.
Some common signs can be :
- you smell from the anus, vagina or penis.
- your entire body is reeking of a foul chemical
- Halitophobia – having bad breath
- Paranoia that other people are talking about you and your imagined smell.
These imaginings will drive you to:
- Wash and shower repeatedly
- Continually sniff your hands to check the area for smells
- Repeatedly seek reassurance from others that you smell okay
- Avoid social contexts just in case you are pointed out
- You may appear to have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
What is an amygdala response?
All fear, like, arousal, and emotional stimulation are controlled by the autonomic responses of the amygdala, the Greek word for almond as that is the actual shape of the amygdala inside the human brain. The purpose of the amygdala is to ensure that you are kept alive, so any threats, whether real or imagined will fire your amygdala into action.
The information received by the amygdala comes directly from the five senses that are used to process the external world. Once the data has been gathered and seen as a threat, the amygdala springs into action, with a selection of responses.
“… how terrible is the pain of the mind and heart when the freedom of mankind is suppressed!”
The amygdala responses:
Fight – You are not thinking coherently and you attack the threat
Flight – The adrenaline and increased sugar in your blood stream helps you to run away.
Freeze – The optimal choice made by many animals. By freezing the predator will usually move on. The trouble with this response in a modern age is that you might find yourself frozen in a job or relationship because of lack of finance or resources, so instead of stepping up and out, your instinctive, below conscious response is to stay.
A psychological dimension to add here is SHAME. What if you feel embarrassed or ashamed for freezing? This too, can have a massive impact on your overall wellbeing, as the resilience in your nervous system will run low and you will be unable to discharge the build up of energy that is being fired up whilst you remain in this context. Chronic pain and dis-ease of the body and mind may very well be linked to this.
“My colleague would often behave terribly at work and although I was her manager and should have reprimanded her, I found that I would freeze, my mouth would dry up and my brain would go blank! I would then beat myself up later for letting her get away with it!”
Flock – Move into a group for the safety of the pack. Safety in numbers.
Fawn – seek safety by being compliant with the wishes, needs and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that to be in any kind of relationship they must forego their own needs, rights, wants and desires. They are usually the product of a child hood where at least one of their parents or caregivers was narcissistic.
They will have been indoctrinated into a life of low self worth and little sense of self. They will have been continually ridiculed, scared and shamed; treat with contempt, which squeezes them into the service of their master.
This covert or subversive behaviour is driven by the amygdala and can be very useful as a defence in a crisis situation. For example If you’re standing at the shop and suddenly, a robber points a gun at you and shouts at you to lie on the floor, the best survival choice open to you is fawning. No one will blame you for doing what you are told to do in this situation.
But what if you are fawning everyday by accepting the misery of a poor quality relationship, or the degradation of working in an abusive workplace, just to pay the bills. This too is submission and even the most primitive part of your brain gets it!
What the mind suppresses the body expresses
So, before you take another pill from your doctor, another large brandy, buy something that you don’t need, or whatever it is you imagine that you do need, to get through your day, please consider that you may be unconsciously fawning, in order to survive.
Surprisingly enough this particular train of thought responds develop very well in a coaching/ therapeutic environment, where you can learn to be free again.
Recommended Treatments for Phobias
The Hudson Mind Process©
The treatment consists of pinpointing where you hold and when you fire the trigger to your phobia and then, humour is used to change your neurological association to the stimulus.
Matt Hudson, a Behavioural Change Consultant, realised that phobia sufferers are not actually afraid of the stimuli in the outside world but rather, they are terrified of the larger, scarier version that their mind has created. By changing your mind you transform the amygdala response and the phobia disappears. In most cases 1 session is all that is necessary for a very high improvement but occasionally it may take 2 or 3 sessions to produce complete remission, which is so in 99% of cases.
The Hudson Mind Process© is used by licensed therapists who are fully trained in the applications of Matt Hudson’s work. For a list of practicing therapists see https://bodymindworkers.com/practitioners/
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy CBT
CBT aims to have you become more conscious about what is happening to you in the present moment. Giving you tools to deal with life as it comes along, one piece at a time. There are 5 areas that the therapy focuses on
- The context or situation
- Your thoughts
- Your emotions
- Your physical feelings
- Your actions
These areas, according to the concept of CBT, are all interconnected and by breaking them down into smaller chunks of information, you will be better able to manage your life. See more at NHS UK
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and the Hudson Mind Process© (HMP) are similar in that they are both:
- Talking Therapies –
- Have a structured process– rather than randomly chatting about whatever pops into your mind, you and your therapist focus on specific problems and set goals for you to achieve
- Logical– helping you to identify specific problems in order to solve them
- Collaborative– your therapist won’t tell you what to do; they’ll work with you to find solutions to your current difficulties
What’s the difference between CBT and HMP©
- CBT focuses on current problems– it’s mainly concerned with how you think and act now rather than attempting to resolve past issues
- HMP© – focuses on resolution of past issues if they are triggering your current problems.
- CBT – looks at your dialogue and what you are currently saying and doing to yourself when the problem is occurring.
- HMP© – is mainly interested in your non-verbal communication and how this is driven or maybe even driving your problem.
- CBT – takes many sessions and may require you to use worksheets and keep a diary.
- HMP© – usually takes up to 3 sessions and requires you to just turn up.