You see the thing you’re most scared of, then what?
You’re crawling in a tunnel when you come to two exits. In one is a small, fragile creature you could crush with a finger; in the other is a machine made of glass and steel, which could crush you and is headed your way. Which exit do you take?
Before you answer, one more thing – the creature is a spider and the machine is a car.
For one in 20 people, the car would be far easier to face. Cars kill nearly 2,000 people in the UK every year, there are 2.6million of them in London alone. Even in Australia fatalities from spider bites are so rare decades can go by without a single recorded death.
And yet around half of the female population and a fifth of men admit to feeling spider phobic. For these people there is no choice regarding which tunnel exit to choose, their bodies will trigger an autonomic response to the spider, the classic grip of fear.
The fear response
When confronted with the source of your phobia, the brain responds incredibly quickly and intensely. Your amygdala (responsible for emotions), hypothalamus (control centre for temperature, thirst and hunger), hippocampus (long term memory and emotional responses), and sensory cortex (thinking and processing information via the senses) team up to create a perfect storm of a physical response and it’s near-impossible to stop.
The worst thing is that, because of this response, you’re now even less capable of thinking clearly. Even if the source of your phobia isn’t something prevalent, the knowledge of your fear can affect your attitude to daily life.
‘Some people develop a fearful lifestyle,’ says psychologist Linda Sapadin, author of Master Your Fears: How to Triumph Over Your Worries and Get On With Your Life.
‘Rather than fear being a response to a specific situation, it becomes a way of life. You are quick to respond with fear even in non-threatening situations. In short, fear becomes a mindset.’
Over time, you can suffer cardiovascular damage as well as digestive disorders if your body is in flight or fight mode too much. Phobias also affect your mind’s consolidation of memories, which can make it more difficult to regulate fear in the future.
Facing your phobia
It used to be thought that by exposing yourself to your phobia, you could resolve it. This is done via visualisation, (where you imagine yourself in phobia scenarios) or via real-life exposure.
While this type of therapy can be successful, it’s not something you should try yourself; you could end up worsening the phobia. If, however, you work with a qualified therapist you may find that over time your response is reduced.
For most, though, exposure therapy simply doesn’t work. ‘Counter-phobics’ are people who have a fear but actively seek out the experience. Like those who are terrified of horror films but watch them often.
Rather than resulting in the phobia disappearing, studies show the fear response remains and sufferers can find themselves seeking out more extreme experiences in a fearful self-fulfilling prophecy.
Fixing the problem
Those brave enough to ask for treatment, will find counselling, possibly group therapy and advice on overcoming the fear response, are tried and tested, over time.
The source of the phobia is usually introduced but in a way that doesn’t elicit a strong response. Perhaps a person with a fear of dogs would imagine a newborn puppy. Then, perhaps touching the puppy, and so on, until the person is able to visualise being around dogs without the fear response kicking in.
Counselling may involve cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) where the patient is given advice on techniques and behaviours to help them address the physical response of fear. In particular, controlled breathing is recommended.
‘Deep breathing helps counter the effects of the fight and flight response, lowering stress,’ says Dr Sheri Jacobson, clinical director of Harley Therapy.
‘Mindfulness is also a tremendously useful technique for managing fears and anxiety. It brings us more into the present, so we deal with what is actually in front of us not the panicked thoughts in our heads.’
Hypnotherapy is also a treatment option, though studies have shown mixed results. This usually involves the patient being hypnotised so the initial trigger of the phobia can be recalled.
The theory is that with this better understanding of the why of your phobia, you can recognise the source isn’t a genuine threat, allowing you to overcome it. One of the main problems with hypnosis, however, is the ‘memories’ produced are sometimes false, triggered by inadvertent suggestion or leading questions by the therapist.
For this reason, hypnosis is no longer recommended.
When fear is unfaceable
For people whose fears stem from real-life events, exposure treatment may not be viable. A new technique being studied in Japan, called Decoded Neurofeedback (DecNef) could be welcome news.
Researchers recorded study participants’ brain activity while showing them various colours and shapes. The researchers then introduced a ‘fear memory’ (using a mild electric shock), providing the shock with specific images.
Afterwards, unsurprisingly, the participants showed ‘fearful brain activity’ when shown those images, even with no shock administered.
The next task was to remove the fear. The participants were asked to think about anything while the researchers monitored their brain activity. As the brain is working non-stop, its activities sometimes mirror that of the fear response, even though the person may not feel fearful.
Whenever this happened, the researchers let the participants know they had earned some money – a reward. It worked. The participants had learned to ‘forget’ their associated fear of the image.
‘We’ve been performing decoded neurofeedback on a patient who is a victim of domestic violence,’ says researcher Dr Toshinori Chiba.
‘She showed clinically significant improvement, but more tests are needed.’ This treatment could revolutionise the way phobias, anxiety, stress and post-traumatic stress disorder are resolved. In the meantime, relaxation techniques and counselling can help you overcome your fears.
One of the other main issues people have seeking treatment is they usually don’t want to face their fear. Ever. Making the decision to address your phobia can be powerful in itself because it gives you greater control. So look for the third exit from the tunnel – the one where you admit you’ve got a problem and do something about it. It’s a decision you won’t regret.
FIND YOUR BALANCE
Time to attack your anxiety
Alarms are sounding. It’s an emergency! Thinking about how you would respond will help you in the situation, should it ever arise. ‘Rather than panicking and fearing the worst, do two things right away,’ says psychologist Linda Sapadin.
- ‘Calm your body down by taking three deep breaths; inhaling slowly through your nose, then exhaling slowly through your mouth. On the exhale, say something reassuring to yourself such as “It’ll be okay”. Then repeat.’
- ‘Tell your mind not to panic, while you wait for information. Only then should you decide what to do.’