Why do we hold on to our fears?

Small spider
A ‘small’ spider in the bathroom

Susie had finally put the kids to bed and tidied up the living room. X-factor would be starting in twenty minutes. Another quiet evening watching TV.  Good to have a rest but a bit dull.  Just enough time to grab a quick shower.

She went into the bathroom, set the shower going, undressed, and stepped in. The water and the lightly scented soap relaxed and invigorated her.  After a few minutes she turned the shower off and reached for her towel, when she saw – a few feet away on the bathroom floor, the most enormous house spider she had ever seen.  In her eyes it seemed about 6 inches across and it glared at her with its 8 eyes, ready to pounce.  Ready to run up her legs and maybe bite her or just crawl all over her.  She let out an involuntary scream, quickly stifled when she remembered the children in bed asleep.  She hated them to see her like this. Sarah, her eldest was already starting to show signs of the same irrational panic.

Standing there, trembling from fear and also from cold now, even though she had managed to get her towel round her. Susan shuddered to herself and tried to decide what to do.  She couldn’t bring herself to kill it. She might miss.  She had nothing to catch it with, even if she had the courage to do so.

Finally she managed to grab hold of her jeans between her and the evil creature. She took out her mobile phone and called Laura downstairs, her best friend.  “Laura? Is that you? ‘ she whimpered. “Can you come rescue me, there’s a giant tarantula in my flat?”

Five minutes later Laura appeared, boyfriend in tow as she wan’t too good with spiders either. Darren caught the offending beast in a jam jar and put it outside.

The crisis averted, all three sat down to watch X-Factor together.  They laughed about the experience and rang out for pizza.  The disastrous start had ended in a delightful social evening.

There was an article in the Guardian the other day, (‘How I overcame my fear of spiders‘, Amy Fleming Guardian Newspaper, 11th October 2014) in which the journalist went along to London Zoo to receive group hypnotherapy to overcome arachnophobia.  I had no idea the zoo ran such a course – apparently so does Bristol Zoo – but it’s a great idea.  The hypnotherapist does his stuff, frees you of your phobia,  and then the zoo provide lots of the little devils on which you can practice your new-found courage – and a couple of rather larger devils too.  The journalist was pleasantly surprised to find that the tarantula was no problem for her – ‘docile and exotic’.

I have had plenty of first-hand experience of dramatic results from hypnotherapy and NLP for those with ‘simple’ phobias of one sort or another. The one question I often ask myself is: why, when phobias can often be so easy and straightforward to overcome, do people seem to prefer to suffer sometimes daily panics and elaborate avoidance strategies rather than just get some help?

Sure, there’s the cost of therapy.  A good hypnotherapist or other practitioner is going to cost you somewhere between £50 and £100 for a session.  The London Zoo session costs £135. But people with poor eyesight will shell out five times as much each year to correct a vision problem.  It’s a question of what’s important, surely?

There is also the fear or uncertainty about the therapy itself.  What does the hypnotherapist do to you?  Few people realise that hypnotherapy is not a thing that is done to you, it is a process that you do yourself with your therapist’s guidance.  No-one can be hypnotised if they don’t want to be.

I think the biggest reason that sufferers don’t get help though, is that on some level their phobia benefits them!

How do you create a phobia?

Your unconscious mind is that part of your brain that is responsible for your automatic reactions, your instincts, even your breathing and the beating of your heart.  It keeps you alive and safe. That’s its job.  When you were very young, maybe you got bitten by a spider, or one crawled over your face while you were asleep (I know, don’t think about it), or you simply saw your mother standing on a chair screaming while a tiny 8 legged creature wandered aimlessly across the kitchen floor. Your adrenaline surged in fear and your unconscious mind stored that memory as something harmful.  From then on every time you saw a spider you experienced the same fear and sometimes this even got worse and worse over time so that just seeing a picture of a spider was enough to set your heart racing.  Your unconscious mind is doing its job too well.

So why not just get rid of the fear?

Rationally we often know that our fears are unreasonable or excessive, but that doesn’t stop us holding on to them.  The unconscious mind is there to protect you and so every behaviour, no matter how odd or unreasonable, has an apparent benefit to you at the subconscious level.  I think maybe that is the key to the question, why don’t people just go and get their phobias sorted out?  They are getting something else from it.  This is what we call ‘secondary gain’, the hidden benefit.

Maybe you are getting attention from your friends, like Susie in the story? Maybe you gain some form of protection from being too adventurous? Maybe you get a kick from the excitement?

We are all different but whatever the benefit, you may not be able to let go of that phobia until you have found out the it gets you, and a way to receive that benefit without having to stand on a table screaming!

How will you find out what the secondary gain is?  Well with a bit of soul searching you may be able to work it out for yourself.  Or otherwise you will just have to go and see a therapist.

Oh, wait! …..

Robert Sanders is a therapist and life coach, supporting people in their present and helping them create their future.

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