Racing heart. Sweaty palms. An overwhelming feeling of terror. All signals that our brain has activated our sympathetic nervous system and adrenal-corticol system to prepare us to either fight the oncoming threat, or flight from it. Useful reactions, necessary for our survival.
But what about if there was no oncoming threat? What if this was all triggered simply by a TV programme, or by going down an escalator. What if merely thinking the about number eight, or seeing the colour purple, brought you out in a cold sweat? Would it still be a useful reaction?
Dr Raymond Hamdan, psychologist at the Human Relations Institute in Knowledge Village, says that this is the main difference between a fear and a phobia – the presence of a stimulus. He says, “When there is a stimulus, or stimuli, present that causes a fight-or-flight reaction in a person, it’s fear. But when you have the same reaction without a stimulus, it’s phobia. Anxiety is when someone experiences an irrational, or illogical, sense of fear in response to something, or a situation. Phobia is simply and extension of that anxiety.” Put simply, if someone feels uneasy on the viewing terrace at the top of the Burj Khalifa, it’s a totally normal reaction to heights. If walking out on to the viewing terrace triggers a panic attack, that’s a fear. If just talking about it puts them into a panic, that’s a phobia.
A common anxiety
Dr Hamdan explains that there are multiple different expressions of anxiety, including generalised anxiety disorder, OCD and panic disorder, and that phobia is just one of them. He goes on to say that he believes phobia to be the most common form of anxiety. He says, “Phobia is probably the single largest category of anxiety disorders, in terms of the number of people who suffer from it. In the population globally, between five and 12 per cent of people suffer from some sort of phobic disorder.”
While the American Psychological Association agrees with this statistic (they say that 10 per cent of people suffer from phobia at some point over their lifetime), they also say that, out of all the people who suffer with phobia, only a small number – six per cent – actually seek professional help. When you consider how debilitating some fears can be, it seems unbelievable that people wouldn’t get it seen to.
Carolyn Coe is a Master NLP life coach who regularly helps clients with fears and phobias. Luckily for her clients, Carolyn knows exactly how scary – and illogical – phobias can be, and how willingly sufferers will absorb their phobias into their day-to-day lives as, until just a few years ago, Carolyn suffered from a phobia of eggs. She says, “When you have a phobia of something, you think nobody will understand the level of your fear. And often they don’t. It was a real trauma for me for many years… my parents used to tell people that I was allergic to eggs because it was easier than explaining that I had a phobia of them. There seemed to be a lack of understanding of phobias and a stigma against them… People just could never understand, or believe, that my fear could be that bad.”
When you’re phobic, there are always some people who will try and talk you out of it. “Come now, eggs can’t hurt you.” Or, “Don’t be silly, there’s never been a shark attack here before.” But, as anyone that has had a phobia will tell you, rational discourse doesn’t even touch the sides of true fear. You know in your head, and heart, that there is nothing really to be afraid of, but the clever biological systems in your body, that jump into action in the face of danger, think otherwise. Carolyn says, “I couldn’t hold an egg in my hand, I couldn’t eat them, or anything that contained them. I used to work in catering and I would actively avoid kitchens and rooms that had eggs in them… when I had it my way, there were no eggs on site at all. I only had to do think about smelling an egg and my heart rate would start going up and I would taste blood in my mouth. I knew eggs couldn’t harm me, but it didn’t stop me feeling anxious at the thought of them.”
It wasn’t until Carolyn did her NLP training that she realised that her egg phobia was something she could – or wanted to – get rid of. Having carried it with her for so long, it had become part of her identity, like a unique selling point of her personality. She says, “I used to find it quite a comical aspect of myself. And I think I used it as a way to create a bond with people… a way of showing a vulnerable side, or a chink in my armour. Over time, it became part of my identity. But when I started doing my NLP life coaching, and I realised all of this, I realised I didn’t want it to define me anymore.”
Fear runs deep
The strange and sometimes complex side of phobias is that they are often linked to something completely unrelated, such as a situation, an experience, or a belief. Often this connection is so deep in our subconscious that we have no conscious recollection of it, or how (or why) it may be linked to the phobia trigger. Dr Raymond says, “Usually anxiety is down to a person associating a negative emotion with something. For example, if you have a car crash at a roundabout, you may have anxiety symptoms every time you go past the place of the crash. Then eventually you might get the anxiety symptoms every time you go near any roundabout.
Similarly, if when you are small, something happens that terrifies you, your subconscious may connect the memory of that fear with something totally unrelated from that day, such as the colour of the t-shirt you were wearing, or the food you were eating, and that could become a phobia trigger for you. Shana Kad, who is also a master NLP life coach, says, “At some point you have made a subconscious connection between fear and a certain scenario, or object. Whether it was because you were too young to have a full understanding of the situation, for example having a phobia of sharks after watching Jaws when as a child, or because an adult experience was so scary for you that it left a lasting impression, for example bad turbulence when flying, your subconscious has installed a fear in order to protect you.” As far as your subconscious is concerned, says Shana, your phobia is necessary for your survival. She says, “So, every time you even think about your phobia trigger, your subconscious says, ‘OK, you’re giving me a really bad scenario right now – are you OK? Are we in danger? I’m going to give you some adrenaline so you can get yourself out of this situation.’”
Reversing the damage
When it comes to ‘curing’ phobias, there are multiple approaches. Dr Hamdan says, “We have different processes which we use for phobias… Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, desensitisation processes where you slowly introduce the trigger to the patient so they can tolerate it, hypnosis, NLP techniques… but the success of the process is often down to the psychological perception of the person. Sometimes people like having their phobia. Others have become so accustomed to it that it is part of their personality and life. So they may not want to be helped.”
The NLP life coaches, Carolyn and Shana, believe that the way to treat phobias is to “scramble” a person’s theory about their fear trigger. Shana says, “When someone has an image in their mind that triggers fear, what we need to do is to make that picture ridiculous to the subconscious. Then we have to get rid of the fear by using advanced language patterns to trick the mind into replacing that image, or movie, with a better one. Once you’ve done that, you’ve got rid of 50 to 95 per cent of the phobia. Now, the final bit is to get rid of the anxiety, which is the physical reaction to your trigger, where your body goes into fight-or-flight mode.” The way to do this, according to Shana, is to do positive visualisations to replace the negative subconscious thoughts with a better story. You may also need to work out what the root of the phobia is, the fear of which may have been there way before you even associated it to the trigger.
It sounds complicated, but it is very doable and surprisingly quick; NLP has been known to turn long term phobias off in just 20 minutes flat. Carolyn says, “I believe that anybody that has a phobia can be cured. I know it because I’ve lived through it myself and, since becoming an NLP life coach, I’ve cured people myself, too. If you’re happy to keep on living with it, that’s fine. But if you believe the time has come to shift it; if you think your standard of life would be better without it, you should try and get rid of it. You may be fine with it, but does it stop you going on holiday, or swimming in the sea with your kids? Does it mean you are limited on what food you eat, or that you have to say ‘No’ to social engagements? If so, it is already causing damage to you and your family. Why live with it unnecessarily? There are people out there who can help you get rid of it for good. But only if you want to.”
Can you be cured?
Steph Whiteley*, 30, has a phobia of public speaking. She says:
“As a child, I was always quite outgoing and sociable, but I never wanted to stand up in front of people. I didn’t have any problem playing sports in front of people, but if I had to do a performance – for music, or drama, or something – I was terrified. The level of fear has stayed the same since then, but I guess my ability to mask it has grown. At a seminar recently where I had to stand up and talk in front of a group of people, my heart started racing, my palms felt sweaty, I was stammering, my knees felt like jelly, I felt sick… I’ve never actually been sick, but I can feel my heart racing and it feels like my head fills up with blood. My vision goes blurry, my hands shake, I can’t hold anything… it’s a nightmare. And it’s hard because I run my own company, so being able to stand up and talk about it is something I really need to do, and really want to do. Also, it’s not just public speaking now. Just walking in to a room of strangers makes me seriously uncomfortable. When I walk into a busy café I feel self-conscious, like I’m being judged. And although I like meeting new people, sometimes it can be quite terrifying. Other things that spin me out include, opening presents in front of people, leaving messages on answerphones, calling people I don’t know, being on the radio (I entered a competition recently and when they called me back, I really panicked – but I really wanted the prize, too). Dubai One is interested in having us (my business partners and I) on one of their shows to talk about our company, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Until now, my phobia has been an inconvenience and it hasn’t been fun, but it’s been OK. But now it’s standing in the way of my career. I need to be able to stand up and tell people about my company, otherwise how am I going to make it a success?”
Steph spent two hours with NLP life coach Shana Kad and came out feeling changed. She says, “I was a little cynical at first, but it was fantastic. Shana gave me some background and then we went through a timeline of my past to get rid of any unprocessed fears from previous years. I found it very emotional, which I wasn’t expecting. And I didn’t think I’d be able to tap into my subconscious but it came very easily. Normally I just have to talk about public speaking and my heart starts racing and my palms start feeling hot. But by the end of the session, I felt so much calmer. The calmness confused me a little as I am not used to being able to think and talk about public speaking and not feel panicked, but it’s good to be able to separate the emotions and the memories. It’s weird though... it’s strange not to have that feeling of fear anymore. It’s like my brain is looking for it, but in my heart it’s not there anymore. My plan now is to call Dubai One and book up a slot on their show... even talking about it now, I don’t know what I’m normally so scared of. I was only with Shana for two hours... it was so simple to do, but completely life changing. I definitely want to see her again to sort out all my other issues, too.”
Ten of the weirdest phobias
- Agyrophobia: Fear of crossing the road
- Chaetophobia: Fear of hair
- Coulrophobia: Fear of clowns
- Frigophobia: Fear of being cold
- Ipovlopsychophobia: Fear of having your photo taken
- Nomophobia: Fear of being out of mobile phone contact
- Omphalophobia; Fear of bellybuttons
- Somniphobia: Fear of sleep
- Triskaidekaphobia: Fear of the number 13
- Xanthophobia; Fear of the colour yellow