[Article] What is a Phobia and how can you deal with it?

When a person reacts with extreme and debilitating fear to a harmless experience or entity, we say they have a phobia. Common phobias include fear of spiders, heights, lifts, snakes, flying and enclosed spaces.  Less common – but no less real for the sufferers – are the phobias about clowns, buttons, flowers or food.

Neurologically, a phobia is a link between a specific stimulus – usually the sight of the thing that is feared – and the fear response. Psychologically, a phobia is an example of ‘one-trial’ learning.  This means that the phobia sufferer has learned from one significant experience a lesson they have never forgotten and indeed cannot control.

I’ve talked to a lot of people who had phobias and it’s clear that phobias are debilitating to the sufferer in many ways:

  • It’s horrible to be afraid of something to such an extent that you can’t move, can’t speak and definitely can’t deal with the problem. For example, the person standing on the sofa for an hour because there’s a spider on the rug.
  • It’s embarrassing to have such an extreme response to something you know is not actually harmful. Many people with phobias experience more stress because they feel silly for having the problem. For example, the person who dropped to all fours in front of colleagues in a glass lift, had to crawl out of the lift at the top floor and then attempt to participate in a business meeting.
  • The phobic response can be triggered by talking about the thing you fear or seeing a picture of it. Thinking about it can bring on the phobic response and make it hard to concentrate on other things. For example, the person who ran away from a piece of paper on which the word ‘snake’ was written.
  • It takes up a lot of mental energy. If you have a phobia you’re constantly on the alert for the thing you fear. It’s like a background programme that runs all the time, checking the environment and future plans. For example the person who had to have the door open and had to sit where they could see out of the room and constantly checked their escape route.
  • It takes up physical energy. The fear is connected to the ‘fight or flight’ response and generates adrenaline. Your heart rate goes up, your digestive organs churn and you want to run, but you have to suppress it all and try to act normal. It’s exhausting! This could be the person who has a phobia of flying and has to travel for business – with their boss or senior colleagues.
  • It can lead to you avoiding situations where there might be a possibility of your phobia being triggered. This can mean turning down invitations or limiting your social life in order to avoid all possibility of the phobia being triggered.
  • In extreme cases it leads to anxiety and depression.

Because phobias are irrational, people are often reluctant to talk about them and therefore don’t get the help and support they need.

Because phobias are irrational, well-meaning friends and family often fall into the trap of thinking that if they keep pointing this out to the sufferer, they will be able to ‘get over it’. This is another reason why people tend not to talk about their phobias – they KNOW they’re being irrational but they can’t control the fear response.

Some decades ago when did my degree in Psychology, the accepted treatment for phobias was Desensitisation Therapy. The theory was that if you exposed the phobic person to the very smallest experience of the thing that triggered their phobia and taught them how to relax around it, you could gradually work up to the full experience and they’d be able to cope. So, for example, someone with a phobia about spiders would perhaps be shown a very small picture of spider a very long way away. When they were able to experience that with no fear, the picture would be brought closer. Eventually, a larger picture might be used and so on until a very tiny actual spider would be introduced.

The challenge with this approach is that it takes a long time. It could mean up to two years of weekly appointments.

Lots of people have heard of this process and the very idea of the treatment involving the thing they’re afraid of put them off seeking help. In fact, it’s a mark of the irrational nature of phobias that most people prefer to live with their phobia than get help for it. The ‘reason’ being that they’re so afraid of the thing they’re afraid of, they’re also afraid that if they weren’t afraid of it any more they’d get hurt.

I said it was irrational!

So what can we do about phobias? There is an NLP approach to phobias that starts from the position that the phobia is a demonstration of your brain’s extraordinary ability to learn.

As a result of one experience, you have learned that this thing is to be feared. You react accordingly, without any effort or prompting. You always react this way. You never forget to do it. What an amazing ability you have.

Then, we move on to acknowledge that the thing you have learned is not actually useful. The fact that you can learn so well is great, this particular lesson is not. Fortunately, it can be unlearned. It’s a simple (when you know how) matter of breaking the neurological connection between the trigger and the response.

It doesn’t require the presence of the thing you fear. It doesn’t even require you think about it for more than a few moments.

The whole process takes – on average – about 40 minutes. I think this represents a giant leap forward in Psychology. It certainly has been for the many people who have taken the NLP approach to phobias.

I’m not going to explain the whole process here. It’s available on-line, but I wouldn’t recommend attempting it unless you’re a Practitioner of NLP. Please encourage people you know to seek help for their phobias. It’s very clear to me that getting rid of a phobia response can be truly life-enhancing. Even if you have to travel to see an NLP Practitioner, it’s probably not going to be more than a day out of your life, but it will make the rest of your life much less stressful.

Finally, if you’re wondering why I’ve chosen this topic for my mainly business-oriented readership, it’s simple. There are more people than you realise who have phobias. I have a client who moved their offices from a three-storey building to three floors near the top of a thirty-story building. HR was overwhelmed with people who were scared to go in the lifts, sit by the windows or even admire the view. If they hadn’t been able to offer appropriate help to all these people, they probably would have lost valuable employees. Don’t let something similar happen to you.