By Brian Robinson.
What is a Phobia
Phobias are not illnesses they are classed as disorders. When we become phobic, this does not mean we are under attack from some virus or that an essential part of our inner defense system has broken down. In fact, just the opposite is true. There is a system in our brain which is concerned only with our safety and with managing danger. I refer to this as a system because it has a specific agenda and the means to pursue it.
One of the imperatives of this system is to keep us safe and this is precisely what a phobia helps us to do. The phobia tells us not to go out; don’t be left alone; don’t get into tight spaces etc. Somewhere during the development of a phobia, a safety connection is made in the brain. This connection links the idea of danger with the thing or situation being avoided. The connection then sits in the mind and takes responsibility for keeping the person safe and away from danger. Before we move on, we shouldn’t be too worried about this idea of connections in the brain. These connections are soft-wired and that means they can be changed. The brain makes and re-makes these associations all the time and there is nothing sinister about them. They act as short-cuts to our understanding of the world, and making and maintaining these associations are an essential part of how we operate as human beings.
A defining characteristic of the phobic mind is that there seems to be some partition between it and the rational mind. The phobic side of the brain does not seem to be as aware as the conscious side. It doesn’t appear to be able to reason its way through things. It acts more on instinct, and therefore we have to assume that it is not as evolved as the rational side of our mind.
The phobic mind does have some primitive understanding though. It apparently has an awareness of when the person is stressed, and it has some knowledge of things that could represent a danger. In other words, there is some logic in almost all phobias. However, the phobic understanding of what is happening in the real world is limited. For example, it understands that snakes can be dangerous and we need to be careful when around them, but it does not seem to be able to tell if snakes are in the room or not. This basic instinctive reasoning and the fact that it is partitioned off from our logical selves, are the main reasons why it is difficult for us to deal with our fears and phobias. We cannot just talk ourselves out of a phobia. Pure dialogue just doesn’t seem to work.
We shouldn’t be too worried about this mention of a partition between our phobic mind and our rational mind though. It is helpful to know of its existence, but we should not see it as a barrier. The evidence suggests that through proper communication with the brain we can weaken and perforate these partitions.
What Causes Phobias
We are not going to dig too deep into the causes of phobias, but we do need to have some idea of how they come about. Many of us seem to be born with an instinctive fear of one thing or another. That could be a fear of spiders, rats, snakes or heights. We may refer to this fear as a phobia, but in reality, these instinctive fears would not warrant that diagnosis. It is only if the fear gets out of hand and significantly affects our daily life that it might amount to a phobia.
We know for sure that many phobias develop as a complication of general anxiety or panic. The person is fearful anyway because of their anxiety, and then that somehow leads to a more specific or general phobia being born. Or, it may be that the person is not suffering from or aware of any general anxiety, but nonetheless there may be underlying high levels of stress which triggers the phobia. Phobias always arise from something. There must be an increasing perception of danger in the brain, or the person must have an increased sense of vulnerability. It is also worth mentioning, that it makes perfect sense to deal with the anxiety or underlying stress first, before tackling the phobia.
Types of phobias
There are an endless number of different types of phobias and there is nothing to be gained by listing them all here. However, phobias are different for reasons other than type and that is worth knowing. Phobias can vary in essential nature. They can be specific or general; weak or strong; simple or complex, and they can be long or short-lived.
We have already mentioned an example of a weak phobia. This is where the person is born with a phobic tendency such as an innate fear of heights. And there also is a trend for anxiety sufferers to develop weak phobias which are better seen as phobic traits. These traits are initiated by the brain and are reflective of its concern when fight or flight is engaged. But they tend to dissolve away as the anxiety wanes. With these types of phobias we have to assume that the connection in the brain is quite weak and not as well defined as with other phobias.
An example of a strong phobia would be, for example, where the person refuses to be left alone and insists that someone is with them at all times. But even with these strong phobias, the strength can vary and their nature can be different. For example, the person may be able to cope with being left alone for short periods of time, or they may only have a fear of being left alone at night.
A specific phobia could be where say the person is afraid of spiders or rats or snakes. And again, even with these phobias, the degree of specificity might vary. For example, the person with a height phobia may only be afraid of certain types of buildings. And even if they had a height phobia, they may be perfectly happy with aircraft travel.
A more general phobia would be something like agoraphobia, where the fear is more about going outside or being away from a safe place rather than anything specific. Again, there may be different characteristics to the phobia. For example, the person may have to be home at a particular time or before it gets dark. Or the person may be able to make short journeys outside when accompanied by someone else.
An example of a simple but strong phobia could be something like a fear of supermarkets. The person might have experienced a severe panic attack while out shopping and subsequently developed the fear. The logic would be that going back into the shop might cause the sufferer to have another panic attack.
A complex phobia might be something like social phobia. With social phobia, there are often issues relating to self-esteem and the way we are viewed by others. Those extra dimensions tend to complicate things. There may also be interaction problems such as blushing or shaking which further tends to compound the problem.
How do we Recover from Phobia
The therapeutic route to recovery is known as Exposure Therapy (discussed separately). To break the connection in the brain we have to get the message through that we are not in danger and Exposure Therapy can help us do that. Regarding the possibilities of getting the message across, there is also a sense in which everything we do, think or feel, holds the opportunity to pass a ‘no danger’ signal to the brain. After all, everything we do involves the mind in some way or another. And, once that message begins to get through, we can expect the phobia to weaken of its own accord. We do not fix anything as such: the phobia fixes itself. It may take a little time and some work before that happens, but one thing we can say for sure, this system in the brain does not want to be energised. A phobia is a means to an end: it is not an end in itself.
Finally, if you have a phobia or a fear which you think is getting out of hand, it would be wise to gather some information about how to recover from a phobia or get some therapeutic help. Be optimistic. People do recover from phobias.