Removing phobic response patterns with hypnotherapy

People, it seems, can be phobic of just about anything and everything, as any Internet search will indeed tell you. Lists of phobias are often presented in a slightly voyeuristic, isn’t-that-weird sort of way. Yet for those who actually suffer from phobias, there is much more to it and their sometimes dire consequences shouldn’t be underestimated. Phobia sufferers can be, literally, in fear of their lives.

So what exactly is a phobia? The dictionary will define it as an irrational fear of an object or circumstance. The important word there is irrational, since fear is sometimes perfectly rational. If you’re confronted with an angry lion or a charging rhinoceros, you’re probably well advised to be afraid. That’s useful information that you’re in mortal peril, and you should remove yourself from danger as quickly as possible. Our instincts take care of that for us – this is the so-called fight or flight response.

The fight or flight response is the body’s response to a perceived threat or danger. During this reaction, adrenaline and cortisol are released into our body, speeding the heart rate, slowing digestion, shunting blood flow to major muscle groups, and changing various other autonomic nervous functions. This gives us a big burst of energy and strength. Just think about what life might have been like for cavemen and women a long time ago. Originally named for its ability to enable us to physically fight or run away when faced with immediate danger, it’s now activated in situations where neither response is appropriate, like in traffic or during a stressful day at work. 

Our distant ancestors did indeed face literal life or death struggles on a daily basis. Imagine that one of these ancestors is ambushed by a lion in tall grass. If they escape, then they’ve learned something from the experience – they might have learned that the rustling of tall grass, for instance, can signal danger. From then on, the rustling of tall grass will trigger an instinctive fear response, preparing the body for fight or flight. The learned fear response happens to be inexact but it has to be, since it would make no sense, in survival terms, if the precise conditions of the initial attack had to be duplicated before the instincts kick in. And so, anything which remotely resembles, or is even tentatively connected with the initial attack can become a trigger for the fear instinct. In the case of our distant ancestors, any rustling movement might be enough to immediately set their instincts in motion.

It’s important to stress that all this takes place at a subconscious level. When this happens, rational thoughts are shut off because the intellect would get in the way. Instincts are primarily there to keep you alive, and in the world in which these guys evolved, standing around thinking about things would have got you killed pretty quickly. These days, thankfully, we rarely face genuine life or death situations.

However, our instincts are still doing their job of keeping us alive, in much the same way they did hundreds of thousands of years ago. And so, learning how to be afraid is an important ancient survival mechanism. It’s just that the phobia sufferer has learned to be afraid of the wrong thing. It’s a vicious circle too, since every time the sufferer has a phobic experience, it actually reinforces the idea that the object or circumstance is something to be afraid of. We can also see the inexact nature of learned fear at work. Somebody who is claustrophobic, for example, might have their first phobic episode in a lift, and then, a bit later, another one in a small crowded room, since it resembles a lift in broad enough detail to activate the fear pattern.

The symptoms of phobias – sweating, rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, a feeling of panic and intense anxiety, hyperventilation and so on – are caused by the fight-or-flight mechanism flooding the body with adrenaline and cortisol. A modern analogy of this would be an email that arrives marked "HIGHLY URGENTt" when really it’s just to tell you that the sandwich lady is in reception (although - to introduce a bit of humor into this matter - some people might regard that as urgent!).

There are many ways to cure phobias, but they all work on the same principle, which is to file that incoming email correctly - in other words, to remove the subconscious fear pattern. Hypnotherapy is particularly effective with this since it deals directly with the subconscious.

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