Fellow Thrive Programme Consultant Shirley Scott provides an answer to the question, ‘Are phobias real?’:
Only if you believe that they are… It’s fair to say that no one comes into the world with a phobia. How can we, when we don’t know what anything is!? If we aren’t born with it, it means we must have (inadvertently) learnt how to create or have the phobia. Underlying any phobia are unhelpful belief systems and unhelpful and powerless thinking and an extremely unhelpful imagination.
Some phobias may come about through an unpleasant experience, for example being bitten by a dog. It stands to reason that one may become fearful of dogs immediately after the incident, which in turn, may grow, to become a full blown phobia. This all makes logical sense. The question to ask, is “what about the person who is bitten, as badly, by the same or similar type or size dog, and still functions normally around dogs?”. Two very similar situations but two very different outcomes.
So, what happens in the situation where a phobia about dogs develops? It goes something like this… person gets bitten. They feel a bit shocked and shaken. The dog is hauled away and the person’s bite is treated. The person feels relieved that there was no major damage done. This is where the scenario could potentially end. But it doesn’t. The person then keeps imagining the scenario over and over again and each time they re-imagine it, they build up more and more anxiety, fear and helplessness around the situation. Every time they see or think of a dog, they will probably recreate the scenario again, creating a strong association between dogs and anxiety and terror. The dog bite has gone from a one off slightly scary and unpleasant to a hugely terrifying ordeal that invokes the flight of fight response, at the mere thought of it. Once the dog bite incident is over, it doesn’t exist, other than in the imagination. Life up until that point has provided evidence that they have been fine around hundreds of dogs. One incident of a vicious or possible ill dog, and guess which evidence gets the most attention…
Any fear and anxiety after the event, is coming from the anxious thinking and not the actual dog bite. The person is now creating the anxiety and terror, not the dog. This is the key to unlocking any phobia – the phobic event, whatever it is, is not something that is happening to the person, it is the anxiety that they are creating, that they are feeling. If they weren’t having those anxious and terrifying thoughts about the dog, they wouldn’t be feeling anxiety and terror.
So what happens with the person who doesn’t develop a phobia from their dog bite. It goes something like this… person gets bitten. They feel a bit shocked and shaken. The dog is hauled away and the person’s bite is treated. Person is very relieved that that ordeal is over and recognises that it is probably a one off scenario, doesn’t generalise all dogs being vicious and ferocious and out to attack them, and so gets on with life. They don’t start to think that all dogs are terrifying. They rationalise that, in general, dogs are quite friendly and they rationalise that they have had far more experiences of friendly dogs than ferocious dogs.
The dog scenario was an example of an unpleasant or traumatic experience turning into a phobia. But there are phobias developing over just about anything, even non-traumatic events. Where there might not have been a traumatic experience, for example a phobia of polystyrene, what happens here is that polystyrene might feel a bit ‘funny’ because it has an unusual texture and it makes an unpleasant noise when rubbed together. Those are the facts. There isn’t anything scary about that. If something scary arises from polystyrene, it means there is additional thinking around it. These thoughts might be “Ugh, that is the MOST awful texture and I get goosebumps every time I hear it / touch it and I can’t stand it.” This is called catastrophising. Something that may be a bit unpleasant or unusual, becomes something horrifying and awful. The person then starts to believe that this is awful and horrifying and that the polystyrene is creating the awful and horrifying feelings. Again, the feelings are NOT coming from the polystyrene, the person is creating those feelings through their thinking about polystyrene. If they are creating it, they can learn to uncreate their response to the situation. Anyone who doesn’t have a phobia of polystyrene, just sees it as some funny white stuff that sounds a bit funny.
The Thrive Programme, which is clinical and research based, teaches you how to overcome phobias (amongst many other problems and symptoms) and learn how to manage your thinking in those “phobic” situations. You learn how to take back control and develop belief systems that you can actually do it!
If you or somebody you know struggles to manage their phobia, contact me to find out how a phobia and related symptoms can be resolved with a course of The Thrive Programme.