Dealing With Phobias: Spiders, Snakes and Balloons

A woman I know turned down a career-making assignment in South Africa. It's not that she didn't want to relocate her family. It's that she was afraid to get on a plane. Fear of heights, fear of spiders or snakes, fear of public speaking, open spaces, balloons even -- phobias are limiting, debilitating conditions that can leave ordinarily high-functioning individuals paralyzed. But what if it didn't have to be that way?

Author and cognitive hypnotherapist Dawn Walton has this to say:

A phobia is never rational. Did you know the No. 1 phobia in the U.K. is spiders? And yet there are no venomous/biting spiders in the U.K. If you are scared of spiders, when a spider comes into the room you stop being yourself. You enter a fight, flight or freeze state (although in fairness I don't know anyone who goes into a fight state for a spider!). Anyone who is not scared of spiders can't understand why you don't just grab a glass and get it out of the room, or even stand on it. The person in a protective state of fear can't think like that. In fact, they can't think at all because the subconscious has taken over. When the spider is gone you get your thinking head back and often beat yourself up 'Why didn't I just catch it in a glass?' 'Why didn't I just stand on it?' 'I am so stupid reacting like that.' This is true of any phobia. You stop being able to think because your subconscious takes over. My job is to stop your subconscious taking over and to allow you to continue to think. You could say I de-hypnotise you because of this. When you are in a state of fear you are in a trance state. I stop you going into that state.

I interviewed Walton about her new book, The Caveman Rules of Survival, and how you can reprogram your brain to get rid of phobias.

Question: Why do you think people develop phobias in the first place?
Answer: It's pretty simple really. Your subconscious is responsible for keeping you safe and well. This is not just about keeping your heart pumping, blood flowing and fighting off viruses, it's also about keeping you safe from threats external to you. The problem is your subconscious is primitive, emotional and stupid. It just reacts to a threat because it doesn't do thinking! A threat is something that will hurt you. In the caveman days the things that hurt you would usually kill you. If you were under attack from a sabre-toothed tiger and took time to work out if you'd remembered to bring your best spear or if you could outrun it on this terrain, then you'd be dead. So when faced with any threat your subconscious triggers an instant physical response; flood your body with adrenaline, increase your heart rate, shorten your breath and get you ready for fight, flight or freeze. Now, as you read that, it probably sounds familiar. All of us can recall having those feelings. You might call it nerves, anxiety or even a panic attack. And yet, there are no sabre-toothed tigers, or indeed any predators, so how come we can all relate to the fight, flight, freeze response? This is because your subconscious is now looking for things that will hurt you emotionally, and equating them to the physical hurt of a sabre-toothed tiger (did I mention it's stupid?).

How does it decide what will hurt you? Well, it learns that when you are a child. All through childhood your subconscious is watching out for lessons that it can put in a rule book. That rule book will then be used once you are an adult to keep you safe and well. If something happens and a rule is matched, it reacts and keeps you safe before you have time to think.

Question: What kinds of phobias have people brought to you?
Answer: Because your subconscious is not capable of rational thought, you can end up with a phobia of anything. All a phobia is, in my view, is a heightened sense of fear that limits your life in some way. I have had phobias of having blood pressure taken, balloons and things that go bang, the dark, flying, heights, puking, standing up and speaking and a few more. I treat them all the same. There is a miscalculation in the subconscious, formed during childhood, where a fight, flight, freeze response is triggered. This takes you into a trance state where you can no longer think straight. Clear out the miscalculation, the rule in the rulebook, and the trigger for the fear goes away, leaving the thinking part of your brain fully engaged.

Question: Can you tell me one story of someone whose phobia truly went away after working with you?
Answer: The one that will always stick in my mind is someone who had a balloon phobia. When they got in touch they described it as "debilitating." In fact it was so bad she couldn't consider having kids because kids have parties and parties have balloons. This particular client had received over six months of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help her get over her phobia (this is a common approach in the U.K. for phobias).

She came to me because it was limiting everything in her life. It had gone from balloons, to Christmas Crackers, to fireworks to hearing cars misfiring all the time. In my experience, it is quite common for phobias to start off with a very specific trigger that then expands to cover more and more similar triggers. It was so bad that if her partner was out without them and saw a balloon, they would freak out too!

So she came to me. Together we worked out the first event where their subconscious had made a connection. We cleared the rule out of the rule book. Towards the end of that 1 hour session I fetched a balloon out of my drawer and blew it up. I hadn't realised how scary that would be. In fact I didn't realise while I was doing it because she sat there calmly in front of me. Once I had blown it up I handed it to her. She sat for the next 10 minutes holding the balloon. The moment that burnt into my mind for ever is watching her walk out of my therapy room with the balloon in her hand, and get into the car where her partner was waiting for her.

I got an email from her the next day. She'd had gone home, blown up balloons, played volleyball with them, and had them in every room of the house. She'd gone to a party shop and spent over 30 minutes in there before finding it was a bit too much for her and leaving.

The email said, "But has it really worked?" I smiled because to me this was the biggest sign that her brain was changing. This is the problem with helping people past phobias that have limited their whole lives. How can one session possibly change all of that?

If there is no rule in the rulebook for the subconscious to follow, then there is no fight, flight, freeze reaction triggered. This is not about coping techniques. This is about keeping the freedom to think. This is about not being triggered in the first place.

Question: So, what do you tell people about their phobias that makes it possible for them to be rid of them?
Answer: Clearing a phobia is simple. Getting a client to believe we have cleared it is not. The fear of the fear is the biggest problem with a phobia. All they have ever known about themselves is that when X happens, they react. So the balloon lady knew that if she saw a balloon she would be terrified. She knew this with a certainty that came from years of evidence. Just because she spent an hour with me, doesn't mean she now has evidence that she will be okay. She needed time to gather evidence.

The simplest way to describe it is to think of the old problem of screen burn in. If you left the same thing on a computer monitor for too long it left an imprint. This is why screensavers where invented. Even if you turned the monitor off, the imprint would still be there. When you turn the monitor back on then the new image would hide the imprint and you would forget it was there.

Clearing a phobia is like this. We have cleared the problem, but all they know is the imprint of how things used to be. It is only through experiencing how things are now that they can learn that things have changed.

Question: What's it like for people after they have worked with you, and find that things have changed?
Answer: Weird! No one believes it's possible. People expect that they will have to work hard to make sure the change happens. This is what most therapeutic approaches require. Mine doesn't. All the hard work sits in being alert to the fact that something will have changed, and allowing yourself to notice it. People leave a session with me looking at me like I'm crazy. They want to believe it worked but there is no way something so simple is going to help them get past this thing that's been in their way their whole life. I don't work eyes closed. I don't put them in a trance state. I don't need to. The subconscious is in charge 90 percent of the time, so the minute we talk about the problem, the subconscious takes over.

Everyone is fully aware of what's going on at all times. So there is no way that can work right? Changes happen instantly but observing the net effect of those changes can take weeks and even months. There is a lot of re-programming that needs to go on in the head after a session. In the same way as screen burn in doesn't go away instantly. It takes time to fade. Then one day you realise that you have walked over a high bridge without even thinking about it, or you now book holidays that involve flying without even giving it a second thought. Because of the way the brain works you probably think you exaggerated your memory of how big the problem was in the first place. It probably wasn't that bad. That's the point. We are changing your brain, not teaching you to cope. You shouldn't remember how bad it was.

But I know. Because I saw you at the start and can see you know. I can see the differences from an objective point of view.

Dawn Walton is the author of The Caveman Rules of Survival and practicing Cognitive Hypnotherapist . She runs sessions in person out of offices in Dundee and Aberdeen in the UK, and internationally via Skype and Facetime; most clients only need between two and three sessions to rewrite the rules in their rulebook.
Dawn has a giveaway of her book on Goodreads that is running until May 1st, 2015. There are 10 copies of her book that can be won.
Click here to enter the giveaway
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Tim Ward is an author and publisher of Changemakers Books.. His newest book is Indestructible You