A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder defined by a persistent and excessive fear of an object or situation. Phobias typically result in a rapid onset of fear and are present for more than six months.
One thing about phobias is that you can avoid dealing with them for only so long. Eventually you have to face up to the fact that you must sort out your phobia.
Because your phobia is making your life unbearable and increasingly interferes with your family, social, and work life. Have no fear (get it? Have no fear?); your hypnotherapist is there to help.
A hypnotherapist can take several approaches to helping you get rid of your phobia. What all approaches have in common is that they bring your fear under control. In fact, hypnotherapy allows you to confront the thing that freaks you out, with a sense of calmness and appropriate relaxation.
You no longer avoid whatever it is; in fact, you look it straight in the eye and thumb your nose at it! You put your fear into proper perspective.
This doesn’t mean to say that you go from being unable to climb up a ladder to standing on the very edge of the Table Mountain, looking down on Cape Town. It simply means that you’re able to deal calmly with those everyday occurrences of whatever it was that you were phobic about.
Your therapist won’t spring surprises on you. Many phobics come to hypnotherapy fearing that their therapist will suddenly produce whatever it is that they fear. That approach went out with the Ark! You won’t suddenly have a spider dumped in your lap, nor will your therapist shut you in a room with his pet canary to cure your bird phobia. Of course, if this is what you want, it can be arranged.
However, by far the majority of hypnotherapists don’t work this way. If you are at all concerned about unpleasant surprises, ask your hypnotherapist, in advance, about the approach they plan to use. If they intend to do something you don’t agree with, say ‘Thanks, but no thanks’, and find someone else.
Starting with the basics
You’ve done it. You turned up for your appointment and are about to undergo hypnotherapy. So what can you expect? Well, for a start, your hypnotherapist is going to take a good case history. As part of that case history, your therapist wants to know as much about your phobia as possible.
Be prepared to tell your therapist
When your phobia first started: This gives an indication of how your phobia came about in the first place, and may provide a pointer as to the therapy technique your hypnotherapist will use.
When your phobia first became a problem for you: Could you cope with the fear to begin with? What was it that eventually turned your fear into a full-blown phobia?
Your worst phobic experience: This can be important as it may be a major contributing factor to the continuing build-up of your phobia.
Your last phobic experience: How long is it since your last experience? How did that affect you?
Whether anyone close to you has the same phobia: This may indicate whether you picked up the phobia from someone else. If you didn’t get it from the person who shares your phobia, perhaps that person could be reinforcing your phobia, because they talk about their own phobic responses in front of you.
Specific information about your phobia: The specifics are important, and your therapist will want to find out as much as possible about how you experience your phobia.
For a fear of heights, your therapist may want to ask you about the heights you can cope with, whether you cope if there is a barrier between you and the drop, how you feel if you see someone else standing in a high place, and so on.
For a fear of cats, your therapist may want to know if you cope more effectively with black cats or ginger cats, if a sleeping cat is less scary than a moving cat, how you feel when you see pictures of cats, and so on.
How you want to be after your phobia is gone: It’s no good just focusing on the negatives, your therapist also wants to help you focus on the reason you are sitting in their therapy room. And that means finding out from you just how you want to be when you encounter that phobic stim-ulus. Remember, you can’t make things perfect – you must be realistic.
Most spider phobics don’t want to have one of their nemeses crawling around on their hand. Rather, they want to feel okay about picking one up out of the bath, on the end of a piece of newspaper, and flicking it out the window.
We’ll let you into a little secret. Even though you probably assume that the therapy occurs only when you are hypnotized, the truth is that the taking of the case history information is very therapeutic in its own right. Being able to talk about your problem to a sympathetic pair of ears is a great set-up for the formal hypnotherapy to come. And don’t worry; your therapist has heard it all before. No matter how strange you think your phobia is, your hypnotherapist has, more than likely, encountered it at some point. Oh, and he won’t laugh, either!
Approaching the trance
So, what can you expect to happen in the trance? Your hypnotherapist may use several different approaches, alone or in combination with each other.
It may take more than one session to help you get rid of your phobia. Be pre-pared to carry out any homework assignments your therapist gives you to do between sessions – such as self-hypnosis – because these help the therapy process along no end.
A very popular approach based on a behaviour therapy technique, created by behaviorist Joseph Wolpe, has the rather posh title of reciprocal inhibition. What that means is you can use one feeling to override another. The feeling you get when you experience your phobia is anxiety. Your therapist uses relaxation to override the anxiety. After all, you can’t be relaxed and anxious at the same time!
Several approaches to hypno-desensitization exist. A very common one is for your therapist to help you create something known as an anxiety hierarchy. Simply put, an anxiety hierarchy is a series of events you come up with regarding your phobia, ranked according to how much anxiety they produce.
You rank these events from 0, which means that you feel no anxiety, to 100, which means that you feel the worst anxiety you can imagine. In hypnosis, your therapist gently takes you through the hierarchy, starting with the events ranked at 0, whilst giving you suggestions that you are calm, relaxed, and in control. He will then question you to find out whether you are indeed calm and relaxed. If you are, he then moves onto the next scene on your hierarchy. If at any point you feel anxious, your therapist will emphasize suggestions for relaxation so that you begin to feel relaxed again.
This is where the reciprocal inhibition really comes in – letting the relaxation wash away the anxiety. Don’t worry, your therapist won’t force you up the hierarchy too quickly, nor will he take you beyond the point at which you feel comfortable. By creating the association of relaxation with the various images from your hierarchy, you change the way your mind thinks about your phobia. When you encounter it in real life, you find that you cope very well indeed.
Going back to regression
This approach is sometimes used by analytical hypnotherapists who believe that to get rid of a phobia you need to understand and deal with its origin.
Your therapist basically takes you back into your past, to the time when the phobia began.
Your hypnotherapist asks you to witness what happened, and perhaps to ‘alter’ the event in your mind, so that you experience yourself coping well in that situation.
Of course, you won’t alter the real event but rather your perception of it. By doing this, you create a domino effect that tumbles into the present, wiping out that irrational fear.
Accessing positive resources
This approach also uses regression, but this time to get resources from your past. These resources are positive feelings that allowed you to cope and feel good before; feelings such as relaxation, confidence, an inner sense of self-control, humour, and so on.
While in trance, you’re asked to create an image that represents your phobia.
You’re then asked to drift back in time and pick up wonderful, positive feelings that help you cope, and bring them forward to the present. You then are guided to fuse your positive resources to the image you created of your phobia.
By doing this, the resources overlay the anxiety the image produces (good old reciprocal inhibition!), and helps to alter the way you think about what-ever it is you were scared of. When you are out and about and eventually encounter your phobia; you’re fine – calm and relaxed and wondering what all the fuss was about.
Trying the fast phobia cure – This one is worth a brief mention as many hypnotherapists use it. It comes from a school of therapy called Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP), which hypnotherapists have adapted so that it can be carried out in trance.
The fast phobia cure essentially disrupts the way you maintain the thoughts and images you hold in your mind about your phobia. For more on this, and NLP in general.
Picturing your life without your phobia
The images, feelings, thoughts and pictures you had in your mind with regard to your phobia are what encourage and egg on the phobia in the first place.
After the main part of your therapy is complete, your therapist will take you forward in time, in your mind, so that you experience yourself coping effectively and thinking and feeling in a more positive way about whatever it was that used to cause your phobic response. This technique is called pseudo orientation in time.
The idea is to reinforce those changes made during therapy to the images, associated thoughts, and so on, which have been causing your anxiety.