The Science of Phobias

There are two parts to your mind – one that thinks, and one that feels.

The thinking part is the conscious, rational mind that you are using now as you read this.

The feeling part is the unconscious, emotional mind. It takes care of automatic tasks like regulating the heart, controlling pain and managing our instincts.

It’s the unconscious mind that is programmed to act instinctively in times of danger. It reacts very fast – making you run or fight – rather than allowing your thinking mind to philosophise while you are attacked by a tiger. This has great survival value.

The unconscious mind is also a very fast learner. The same emergency route that can bypass the rational mind in times of danger can also stamp strong emotional experiences (traumatic ones) in the unconscious mind. This makes evolutionary sense – it ensures that we have vivid imprints of the things that threaten us.

And just like we have two minds, so we have two memory systems: one for the facts and one for the emotions that may or may not go with those facts.

Sometimes, when a person experiences a very traumatic event, the highly emotional memory of the event becomes trapped – locked in the emotional brain. In an area called the amygdala – the emotional storehouse. There is no chance for the rational mind to process it and save it as an ordinary, non-threatening memory in factual storage (in the hypocampus). Like the memory of what you did last Sunday.

Instead, the emotional brain holds onto this unprocessed reaction pattern because it thinks it needs it for survival. And it will trigger it whenever you encounter a situation or object that is anything like the original trauma. It doesn’t have to be a precise match.

This is pure survival again. You only need to see part of a tiger through the bushes for the fear reaction to kick in again – for the “fight or flight” response to trigger – you don’t have to wait until you see the whole tiger or identify it exactly as the tiger that attacked you before. In fact, it probably only has to be something orange and black moving through the bushes. This is why the pattern matching process is necessarily approximate, or sloppy. You err on the side of safety. You don’t have to have all the details to know if something is dangerous.

This is the basis of a phobia: a fear response attached to something that was present in the original trauma. The response is terror, shaking, sweating, heart pounding etc. And because of the sloppy pattern-matching it can be stuck to literally anything – animal, mineral or vegetable. It may not even be glued to the thing that caused the trauma. So, a child attacked in a pram by a dog may develop a phobia of prams rather than of dogs.

It is because phobias are created in this way, by our natural psycho-neurology, that they are so common. It’s the way we are wired. Approximately 10% of people have a phobia. And it’s precisely because they are created by the unconscious mind that they seem so irrational. Of course they are – the rational thinking brain hasn’t had a chance to go to work on them.

Many traditional phobia treatments, including drugs, attempt to deal with the phobia by calming things down after this response pattern has triggered. They treat the symptoms, not the cause.

To treat the cause, this trapped traumatic memory has to be turned into, and saved as, an ordinary unemotional memory of a past event. The emotional tag, the terror response, needs to be unstuck from that object or situation.

This is exactly what the Fast Phobia Cure does. It allows you to review the traumatic event or memory from a calm and dissociated, or disconnected, state. Your rational mind can then do its work in turning the memory into an ordinary, neutral, non-threatening one. And store it in factual memory where it should have been to start with. This happens very quickly. The mind learns fast. It learned the fear response quickly and it learns the neutral response just as quickly. And when that happens your phobia is gone. You are free.

Phobia Names

Most people know the technical, scientific name for their phobia.

This may give them some comfort: it has a name so they know they are not the first person in the world to have the phobia. But whatever the phobia, someone else has it whether or not it has been given a Greek/Latin name.

And knowing its name probably hasn’t helped them deal with it. In fact, just the opposite: we know that some phobics experience anxiety at the mention of the scientific name. A person with a phobia of long words won’t be helped by knowing they have hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia.

So we rarely use these names in our clinics and we haven’t listed them here.

Types of Phobia

Our clients bring with them some very interesting examples of phobias. These phobias fall into two types:

1  Specific or simple phobias

These are phobias linked to a specific object or situation. Examples are spiders, snakes, bees, worms, frogs, birds, dogs, cats, hedgehogs, goldfish, sharks, vomiting, drivingflying, clowns, balloons, thunder, needles, blood, dentists, beards, buttons, velvet, feathers, lifts and marbles.

Specific phobias can also be generalised – for example to all slimy green reptiles rather than just frogs. This seems to happen when the original traumatic event can’t be recalled.

2  Non-specific phobias

These phobias produce a more general anxiety or terror linked to social or performance situations and are often accompanied by panic attacks.

Agoraphobia (open spaces), claustrophobia (confined spaces) and social phobia (public speaking, being the centre of attention) are non-specific phobias.

Fear or Phobia?

Phobias are not the same as normal fear responses.

It is normal, for example, to experience some fear when on a precipice or in the presence of a snake. But not to be terrified at the thought of a high place or snake. It is the overwhelming terror that distinguishes a phobia.

If you have a phobia you will be able to induce some of the common fear responses – shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, nausea, increased heart-rate, flushing, shaking – just by thinking about the trigger.

You are likely to have only one phobia. You may have other fears, but probably only one phobia. People generally seem to have the capacity for one proper phobia.

The Fast Phobia Cure

The Fast Phobia Cure (also known as the Rewind Technique or, in Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), as “The Visual-Kinesthetic Dissociation Technique”) is an advanced tool to decondition phobias and trauma (such as PTSD). It’s efficacy has been assessed in many academic papers such as the work by Gray & Liotta. It’s safe, gentle and without the drugs, scare tactics, psychological archaeology and exposure used by the older and less effective phobia treatments.

The Fast Phobia Cure is now widely accepted as the most reliable and effective treatment for all kinds of phobias, even long-standing and severe ones. It’s probably the single most reliable and effective tool in psychotherapy today and is being used more and more as a front-line treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder including trauma caused by accidents, assaults, war and witnessing critical incidents.

If you have ever seen someone being almost instantly released from their phobia on TV and thought “Wow, how did they do that?” you can bet the therapist used The Fast Phobia Cure.

So how does it work?

A phobia is driven by a pattern-matching process whereby the unconscious mind creates “fear templates” around “dangerous” things or situations to try and keep you safe from the imagined threat in future. It then broadly matches these patterns to more and more situations as a phobia develops.

What Fast Phobia Cure does, in a very creative way, is interfere with those patterns – it subtly changes the templates by changing the way we experience the memories – so when the unconscious mind tries to match the patterns, they don’t match anymore and the anxiety is no longer triggered. The templates (memories) will still be there, they will just feel different. The emotional tag will be gone. The phobia just won’t work anymore.

This can all be done very quickly because the brain learns very fast. It learned to be phobic very fast. Teaching it how not to be phobic can be, and is necessarily, equally fast. It does not take long-term treatment. The mind can then start to generalise outwards, but this time in a very positive way, as it begins to associate more and more situations with feelings of calm and control.

One of the great things about The Fast Phobia Cure is that it is non-intrusive: the therapist doesn’t need to know the precise details of the traumatic memories or phobic encounters because the sufferer brings their content (their experiences) to the process.

If you have a phobia you want to get rid of then you can experience The Fast Phobia Cure for yourself in our Phobia Cure program.

The methodology of the Fast Phobia Cure was first developed by Richard Bandler, one of the founders of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) – the new science of excellence and personal change. It is so effective at detraumatising memories that it is being used more and more as a front-line treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder including trauma caused by accidents, assaults, war and witnessing critical incidents.

More recently, work by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell of the European Therapy Studies Institute has clarified how and why the Fast Phobia Cure works.

How do driving phobias start?

Pretty well all driving phobias are set up by a one-off learning event.

It would be natural to assume that this event has to be something really traumatic and life-threatening like a road traffic accident. But if it had been, it would most likely create some form of short-lived post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a natural avoidance of driving for some time afterwards and this is slightly different in nature and structure to a driving phobia. So many people with a fear of driving will say they don’t know when their thing started because they are searching their minds for something horrific.

The reality is that probably 95% or more of driving phobias start with something milder – like suddenly feeling a little strange when driving at speed on a multi-lane highway. Something like:

“I was just driving along and I tried to overtake a truck….. and couldn’t do it and felt a bit panicky and weird…. and managed to drive on then thought nothing of it until it happened again the next day.”

This kind of experience would probably hold true for more than half of all set-up events for driving phobias.

If you are following the math(s) then you can see that there is a 9 out of 10 chance that your driving phobia was caused by a relatively mild, one-off learning event. There is a high probability that it started on a multi-lane highway when you were much more stressed than usual.

Making sense of driving phobia

The most frustrating thing about a driving phobia – indeed about any phobia – is that it doesn’t seem to make sense.

Part of you knows that you are probably a good, competent driver and that nothing else has changed. You have the driving experience and the skills. The roads and traffic are still the same. But no matter what you tell yourself – or others tell you (if you’ve had the courage to tell anyone about your driving phobia) – all the logic and reason doesn’t make any difference because the irrational unconscious mind kicks in and says “No, feel frightened, feel scared”.

So a fear of driving will often start to affect self-confidence and self-esteem. “Why me? Why can’t I change this?”.

Probably even more frustrating, willpower doesn’t seem to change a fear of driving either. Other things in life respond to willpower and effort: you apply some willpower and they change. But the driving phobia doesn’t. Well, again, that’s because it’s a different part of your mind that’s been driving the fear. Willpower is a function of your conscious mind and has little effect on your powerful unconscious, especially when it’s talking “survival”.

But a driving phobia does make some sense at an unconscious level. The unconscious mind is trying to protect you from what it began to imagine were life-threatening driving situations. It attached all kinds of uncomfortable feelings to those situations to try and make it so uncomfortable you wouldn’t even go there, so by it’s own “logic” you would stay safe and survive.

So any effective driving phobia treatment needs to work with the creative unconscious mind that created the fear to start with. And that is exactly what our program does: it uses a range of powerful psychological tools to decondition the fear responses and install some calm patterns for future so you can drive in comfort and feel in control again.

If driving phobia was all to do with logic and reason then you wouldn’t have a driving phobia and you wouldn’t need our program.

Can driving simulators help?

A new phobia treatment centre has opened in Spain (Burmin Institute) which uses virtual reality simulators to treat a range of phobias and anxiety states. The treatment – called virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) – is based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) whereby gradual exposure to the feared situation in a controlled virtual world is intended to reduce or extinguish the fear responses.

Over the years there has also been research into the efficacy of virtual reality treatments on driving phobia. For example the study by The University of Manchester (Science Daily).

These studies show some benefit although it can be a slow process – often taking 12 sessions over 3 months – and a costly one (creating and running the advanced simulators is expensive).

Far better then to use the greatest virtual reality simulator know to man: the human brain. Everyone’s got one and access is quick and free. But using it correctly is the trick. In fact, it’s the misuse of this wonderful simulator – the human imagination – that creates so many problems in the first place.

That’s why we can terrify ourselves with nightmares and phobics can scare themselves just by thinking about their phobic trigger. A driving phobic just has to think about a future journey and the imagination will kick in and create a disaster movie of it in their head. The brain struggles to distinguishing between reality and this near-perfect simulation and starts to trigger basic survival responses and can tip them into panic even before they get anywhere near a car.

So what we do in the MindSpa Phobia Clinic when treating the fear of driving and other phobias is to utilise the power of this virtual reality simulator using a variety of tools which rely strongly on directed visualisations to decondition the phobic patterns and responses and install calm ones for future. This can all be done in a very safe and controlled way and very quickly – typically in one or two sessions.

Life in the slow lane?

With driving phobias, not only does the driving itself become physically and emotionally exhausting, but huge amounts of time and mental energy are used in planning and then driving alternative routes or else using public transport.

This is life in the slow lane.

The avoidance and manipulation takes effort too.

All this starts to put pressure on work, social and family life. No longer being able to drive to work, go to the shops, visit family and friends, take the children out on trips and holidays or just drop them off at school and parties has a huge impact on day-to-day living.

Add in the embarrassment and self-doubt (“what’s wrong with me?”) to the loss of freedom, independence and spontaneity, and driving phobia becomes a real limit on living.

Amazingly though, many sufferers will accommodate driving phobia in their lives for years and even decades, believing that they are alone and no-one will understand their fear of driving or be able to help. Some will be lucky enough to have opportunities not to drive at all: perhaps their partner does it all, or they live in a metropolis with congested roads and good public transport or have a private driver.

Most drivers though will get to a point – maybe because of a particularly uncomfortable incident or a change in personal circumstances – when they think “enough is enough” and do something about it. And get help.

Case Study: The Psychiatrist

A psychiatrist who had driven very happily for many years developed a driving phobia when her grandmother became very ill.

Her grandmother was in a care home an hour’s drive away and the only times the psychiatrist could visit her was before she went to work each day. So she would get up early, drive out to see her grandmother and then drive on to work.

This became very stressful because not only was she stressed by her grandmother being unwell, she was getting up very early each day and this was exhausting her. Added to that her visits were always very upsetting with her grandmother always begging her not to leave her there.

One day, after a visit to her grandmother she experienced a moment of mild panic when driving to the office. This was the beginning of her driving phobia. It was brought on by physical and emotional stress.

Not wanting to self-medicate with drugs (few doctors we see take their own medicine), she came to the MindSpa Phobia Clinic for help and was so surprised by the result that she is now studying the techniques we use in the clinic because all her training had led her to believe that change could not happen so quickly.