Hypnotherapy for phobias and fears

If you have a phobia or a "fear of...", you’ll know just how much of an effect it can have on your life.


Some phobias seem easier to deal with than others (to those not suffering from them at least!). If you don’t see snakes every day then it’s not so bad, right?

But phobias often come with rumination (going over the worry again and again in your head) or with hypervigilance (constantly checking there are no snakes today) so just because we’re afraid of something we don’t see that much doesn’t mean it’s not affecting us every day.

And although, for some people, constant exposure can help them get used to the fear response. For others, every encounter with the thing they’re afraid of gives them a stronger reaction. So being in contact with your phobia every day doesn’t make it easier either.

What causes this fear reaction?

A phobia response is pretty much a trauma response. Like trauma, it’s a reaction in the body. We don’t get to choose what is and isn’t traumatic for us. Our instincts react for us. And this instinct comes from the nervous system – it goes into fight/ flight 'activation' mode. Sweaty palms, fast heartbeat, inability to think clearly, shakiness.

The nervous system reacts faster than the thinking part of the brain. It must. We don’t have time in a genuine emergency to work out if we really should be running. The nervous system senses danger and our body automatically acts. In fact, it shuts down the logical, processing part of the brain to stop it from getting in the way.

Once you’ve had a nervous system response to something, it becomes part of the list of things your instincts are checking for which makes you more likely to have the same response again.

What made our nervous system react that way?

We’re social creatures so witnessing another person being afraid can spook our own nervous system. This is especially true when we’re children and laying down learning and behaviour patterns. This may be why we have similar fears to our parents and carers.

If we’re in an already heightened state due to stress or a recent trauma, our instincts are already on higher alert so you may be more likely to gain a new phobia when you’re already having a difficult time.

But some phobias are common

How many people do you know who are afraid of spiders? Or drowning?

We’re all born with two innate fears – falling and loud noises. Some researchers believe every other fear is learnt through life. But epigenetics and transgenerational research have shown the genes we’re born with can be activated by the experiences of our ancestors. Our bodies learn to adapt to environmental needs based on what happened in not just our past, but that of our predecessors. It’s not a huge leap then to consider whether phobias can be both learnt and inherited.

Our "irrational" fears aren’t always so irrational

Spiders for example might be harmless in the UK, but elsewhere in the world, they’re deadly. If we try and tell our instincts not to be afraid, we’re not letting them do their job of keeping us safe. And if I hypnotise you to believe you can trust all spiders, your subconscious will override that. Because they aren’t all safe. It doesn’t want or need you to believe that.

Similarly, the subconscious simply doesn’t believe "irrational" fears like pom poms, or the colour red are safe. Just telling it that’s the case won’t help. At least it won’t for long. Sometimes it might "work" for a few days.

The brain looks for patterns, it takes shortcuts

Early research into the effect of loud noises on babies accidentally created a fear of white fluffy toys in an infant. This started with a toy rat, but the nervous system pathway became a fear of all white fluffy toys, not just the original rat.

Cats are afraid of cucumbers. You may have seen the hilarious (but quite cruel) videos across social media of people scaring their cats with cucumbers. Cats are instinctively programmed to avoid snakes. The nervous system doesn’t have time to decide whether that’s a cucumber or a snake, it simply reacts. And ours does the same to our fears. This is also the reason horses get jumpy about sticks.

Irrational fears aren’t always as irrational as we think they are.

But sometimes, particularly in high stress, the brain creates pathways that misfire. It’s a bit like when we wire the house, but the doorbell now pings when you turn the outside light on. It’s just that the wires are connected wrongly.

Because autistic people have more pathways and may experience higher levels of stress dealing with daily life, there is a higher chance of misfiring pathways.

Reprogramming these pathways can be nice and simple for a hypnotherapist.

But no longer being afraid of cucumbers may not stop you being afraid of snakes. Some brain retraining therapies can numb the nervous system reaction rather than deprogram it. And that’s a problem – because we need to react to danger. Being in a shutdown state makes us less safe not more. Not reacting to something which is a threat takes away our ability to judge fear.

The phobic or panic reaction is an overreaction. But it isn’t an irrational reaction.

Telling the body it’s not afraid when it is can cause us to unlearn normal, natural reactions to danger. The subconscious may simply just not allow you to do this. And that’s why some behavioural-type therapies just don’t work for everyone.

This is why when I work with phobias, I take time to listen to the subconscious and let it tell me why it’s having this nervous system response. I don’t automatically deprogram something that’s designed to keep you safe. Instead, I work with the over-reaction. When we trust our instincts, our instincts trust us.

How can hypnotherapy help?

Hypnotherapy, instead of gaslighting your mind into believing the unsafe is safe, asks your mind to take a different approach. To lessen the reaction in the body to the trauma; to find a faster way to bring the logical, thinking part of the brain back online after a fear response.

Sometimes we take a deeper dive into historical reasons (either ancestral or within your own lifetime) to understand why, and then explain to the subconscious why this is less of a worry for you, right now. And why, if it is still a threat, the overreaction is causing more danger not less.

I never make a client relive the original trauma response. There’s often simply no need. The mind can explain why without having to relive it. If the subconscious chooses to take a client to the source, I work with it in a way that numbs the nervous system reaction, but most of the time there’s no reason for anyone to relive something scary. If you want to process the original fear via regression, going back to the point directly after is more helpful and a whole lot kinder.

This is the same whether you’re working with your own trauma or that of a parent whose nervous system you learnt the phobia from, or the trauma of an ancestor. We don’t need to do anything that causes us pain and fear. You came to me because you’ve had enough of fear and phobia.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Hypnotherapy Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Sandwich CT13 & Herne Bay CT6
Written by Katie Gerrard, Integrative Hypnotherapist, MSc, Dip Hyp, GHR, CNHC, GMBPsS
Sandwich CT13 & Herne Bay CT6

Katie Gerrard is an experienced, qualified, registered and insured Hypnotherapist specialising in trauma (including phobias), habits, and working with neurodivergent clients. She works with ancestral patterns, polyvagal theory, and parts therapy and is passionate about researching and honing her craft.

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