Center for Conscious Living

Conquering Phobias

We are all afraid of something. Fear helps to keep us alive. It keeps us from running into the street and touching the stove and jumping out of 10-story windows. It reminds us to wash our hands and handle broken glass carefully. When normal fear starts to limit your life in seemingly irrational ways, we call that a phobia. From washing your hands excessively to get rid of germs to staying away from elevators or out of tall buildings to running inside at the sight of a dog across the street, phobias restrict your enjoyment of your life and your sense of freedom to move about.

Natural but Excessive

Sometimes it is tough to tell the difference between a rational fear and a phobia. After all, germs ARE dangerous, right? And people DO die in plane crashes! That spider COULD be poisonous. But justify as you will, your phobia is not rational, because it represents an excessive fear beyond that which would save your life. In other words, most germs are nasty but not truly dangerous. Thus, while it is good to wash your hands after certain activities and before eating, washing more than once is not better and does not reflect the level of danger involved. Similarly, while planes occasionally crash, they do not randomly fall from the sky, and fewer people lose their lives in airplanes than in cars or on sofas in a given year. Thus, avoiding airplanes while continuing to drive cars is not a rational approach to the realistic level of danger. And your typical house spider may be an unwelcome guest, but it is not deadly.

The Logic of Phobias

Having a phobia does not mean there is something wrong with you. It means there is something wrong with how you are reacting to something. The origins of phobias indeed rest in our primitive perception of danger. Whether germs, dogs, snakes, spiders, vomiting, heights, or closed spaces are your phobic object, if you lived in a cave, your fear might save your life. In modern society, however, many things that might have killed a primitive human have been tamed, and. in some cases, made beneficial. Bacteria can be used to make antibiotics and yogurt, and are no longer deadly with predictable frequency; dogs can be made into pets and companions and do not often steal the last of your food supply nor eat your children; fast-moving cages of various sorts can be used to transport us from place to place more efficiently than either running or riding a horse. Yes, your phobia is not without some logical basis in fear, but it has taken over your logic and restricted your life.

Response Prevention Works

First the bad news: there is no magic pill that will cure your phobia. Then the good news: psychotherapy indeed is an effective means to solve your problem. That does not mean it is simple, but it does mean a solution exists that you can implement. While there is certainly not only one type of psychotherapy that will work to help you do this, there is one fail safe technique that must be included in your cure: it is called response prevention. In the case of a phobia, the response you need to prevent is avoidance.

Avoiding Avoidance

Essentially, when you developed a phobia, it is highly likely that you did so because an aversive or frightening event occurred, and you proceeded to avoid similar events in the future. Your brain, being adaptable, determined that your ongoing survival was thus dependent upon avoiding the now-phobic object, and a pattern was set up that essentially said ?if I just stay out of airplanes/avoid dogs, I will be safer?. We have all been told, after a nasty incident of some sort, to ?get back on the horse?. This trite saying is indeed good advice. While you ought not to get back in the still-broken elevator or re-engage the dog that just attacked you, you indeed ought to get into a working elevator or engage with a dog that is a known quantity as soon as possible after a frightening event. If it is a germ that plagues you, because you tragically saw a friend succumb to MRSA or lost a close relative to pneumonia, you certainly do not need to go out and get sick, but you do need to prevent yourself from washing excessively or avoiding all human contact as a means of avoiding germs.

Avoiding Phobia Creation

As adults we sometimes inadvertently cause our own phobias, and we often enable the phobic responses of our children in the name of calming them after a bad experience. A child might become phobic of blood if mother overreacts to a bad cut, but is unlikely to become phobic if she calmly instructs her child as to what the blood is doing leaking out like that and how to stop it.

Face Your Phobia

Returning to the cure, reversing the process by which the brain became phobic is the basis by which all forms of phobia are cured. We have been avoiding, and we must stop avoiding. Help is available from many types of therapy. You can practice exposing yourself to dogs in a hypnotic image as well as in real time. You can talk yourself out of running inside when you hear thunder using tools from cognitive therapy or rational-emotive therapy. You can make a list of things that scare you and gradually practice tolerating them, as in systematic desensitization. You can get help from someone who practices EMDR or TFT to break the phobic response chain. You can do as many of these techniques as you like to help you tolerate a phobic object, but the bottom line is that you must stop allowing yourself to avoid, and begin, as gradually as you prefer, to face your phobia.

The Danger of Intermittent Reinforcement

One thing we know about how the mind works, is that occasionally reinforcing a behavior is a very powerful way to make sure it happens again. What this means is that if even once a week you return to your old habit of running out of the room when you see a spider, you are not going to find your fear decreasing. Once you begin the desensitization process, be nice to yourself and remain vigilant to increase the exposure you can tolerate without panic and not fall back into the old restrictive pattern.

Deeper Meaning

In addition to the process of conditioning that is related to the start of a phobia, occasionally there is a deeper fear that is less obvious. This sometimes requires an additional treatment to reframe the older meaning or reduce the traumatic effect of the incident. Many techniques exist for this level of treatment as well: EMDR, sensorimotor psychotherapy, and clinical hypnosis are among them.

Help that Works

The answer to your uncomfortable and limiting phobia exists. REBT and Clinical hypnosis can help you regain control of your lfe. Please call Dr. Low at 916-936-2325 to learn more.

Dr. Low is trained in clinical hypnosis, Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy, and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, as well as the specific treatment of traumatic incidents.

 Eat food, mostly plants, not too much!  -Michael PollanIn Defense of Food