Belfast Telegraph

Conquering your phobias

If you’ve got one, you’re in good company. In the UK, approximat­ely 10m people suffer from this type of anxiety disorder. A Harley Street expert speaks to Áine Toner about possible solutions


A Harley Street expert’s tips on coping with a disorder which affects 10m in UK

DEPENDING on their nature and severity, phobias can range from being an inconvenie­nce to limiting your life. Harley Street phobia specialist Christophe­r Paul Jones has treated clients — including a few Oscar nominees — both in his London clinic and via Zoom.

His book Face Your Fears: 7 Steps to Conquering Phobias & Anxiety is a practical guide to taking control of your mental wellbeing and treating common phobias.

Christophe­r’s over 20 years of research into phobias has led to an integrated approach — called the integrated change system — combining mainstream psychology with cutting-edge techniques.

Here, he shares with the Belfast Telegraph the ins and outs of phobias.

How are phobias defined?

A lot of people have phobias and it varies from person to person. There are some people that say, ‘I have a phobia’, but they can face that thing, so that’s really a fear. There’s people that literally you can say the word and they’ll be caught up in a ball. It’s quite a range of different things what a phobia can mean to people, but specifical­ly is an irrational response to fear. You know proportion­ately it might be safe, but you don’t feel safe.

Are they linked to unrealisti­c fears?

Yes. It’s where your mind has associated danger to something that isn’t statistica­lly dangerous. You’ll fire off the same response as if you’re about to be attacked by a tiger. Your brain basically goes into fight, flight or freeze. It wants to run away, wants to get angry or wants to play dead and your brain is hard-wired to do that when you’re in real danger. It’s just wrongly associated danger to something that isn’t statistica­lly dangerous.

How do they start?

You know the story of Pavlov’s dog: ring the bell, feed the dog, ring the bell, feed the dog, eventually the dog salivated. Human beings do the same thing.

Kissing the love of your life, there’s a piece of music playing on the radio and if the emotions are strong enough, you could hear that tune two, three, 10 years later and feel happy.

So what tends to happen with a phobia is at some point in your past, your brain has gone ‘this thing equals danger’.

An obvious example is you’re eight years old, you’re on an aeroplane and you have a turbulent flight. Afterwards, your brain goes, ‘Oh, that’s awful’ even though you could read all the statistics on how turbulence doesn’t bring down planes. But your brain, your emotional mind, has gone ‘this feels horrible. Now I’m going to do whatever I can to keep me safe so I’m going to avoid that’. That could be anything from your parents being afraid to being made to jump from a movie or reading an article or anything.

This is subconscio­us, but once your mind has decided something is scary, it’ll look for evidence where that’s true.

It’s to do with that conditioni­ng. Basically, we’re conditione­d to have that associatio­n and a lot of these things happen when we were very young. And of course, we’re not forgetting that emo

tions don’t work on logic and never have, a lot of these things are created when we’re very small.

The brain is very good at generalisi­ng, where it makes one learning and then assumes that that’s always the case. It’s a brilliant skill because it means we don’t have to remind ourselves not to touch a hot stove every time we see a hot stove.

We don’t have to remind ourselves how to sit in a chair every time we go into a new office. But the problem with that is we end up generalisi­ng mistakes in the mind’s dangerous response and that’s really what a phobia is.

Can a phobia be linked to anxiety?

It can be. Someone who has a lot of anxiety tends to create a lot of phobias. A phobia tends to be a very specific trigger like I’m talking about. Anxiety tends to come about at least from a prolonged period of not feeling safe when you’re young or sometimes later in life. Your parents argued all the time, or you just didn’t feel safe at home.

And what happens is your fight, flight or freeze becomes overclocke­d, so everything outside your comfort zone is likely to get linked with danger and so you’re likely to create quite a few.

So someone who has a lot of different phobias probably has a lot of general anxiety. The triggers are similar, although one tends to be a longer period of sustained fear and one is a very specific trigger, but they can be treated in very similar ways.

What is the integrated change system?

It’s a combinatio­n of different tools, a lot from various schools of therapy. You’ve got things like hypnothera­py and mindfulnes­s and eye movement processes like EMDR. I learned all these different tools for actually helping people change and then I combined it into a system to work through it. But the simplest way of explaining is it’s turning off that Pavlovian bell.

So right now what most people do without realising it is when they have a phobia, they see a spider and their mind is actually regressing how they feel about spiders. So they’re going back to that early time when they first created that fear. The main step or certainly the first step, is to find that and two is to change that now.

People ask me, how is it possible to get over fear sometimes in one session when they’ve had it for 20 years? You haven’t had it for 20 years; what you’ve had is that one memory or a few memories that you keep repeating.

And so if you link enough pleasure to something, you can change how you feel in a second.

The first thing is to look at the past. What are the triggers? What’s caused you to feel that way? What are you doing in the present to feel afraid?

People often don’t realise that there’s a recipe to how you feel. There’s a sequence of things you have to do, a sequence of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, emotions, to feel anxious, to feel happy, to feel calm. By getting clear on what that is, it becomes easier to break apart and change the ones you’re not happy with.

Then you’ve got fear of the future, which is very common with anxiety, which is anticipati­on. This is where you’re imagining something that hasn’t even happened yet and already deciding you’re going to be anxious. With the plane analogy, you’re already imagining yourself sat on the plane, sweating profusely.

Depending on what you’re putting in your mind determines how you feel.

Then you also have what’s called secondary gain. Now this is the benefit for being afraid. If I said to someone who’s phobic, what’s the benefit for having this? Logically, they say nothing. But if it didn’t serve them subconscio­usly, they wouldn’t be doing it and most commonly with phobias and anxiety, it’s protection or safety or being prepared.

It’s teaching the mind that actually, fear isn’t doing that.

People are used to traditiona­l therapy where you just talk about your problem. Which is fine, to get insight and perspectiv­e, there’s a place for that, but it tends to look at the why of your issue rather than the how.

The work I do is looking how and learning how to change that. So it tends to be a lot faster than sort of traditiona­l talk therapy.

Do you have a high success rate?

As long as people are willing to go there, as long as people don’t sort of go come on, Harry Potter, fix me, then they’ll get the results.

Because most fears are not born, most fears are learned even when you were two or three. It might be long before your analytical mind can remember, but everything that’s ever happened to you is in your emotional mind and your subconscio­us.

That’s why we have visualisat­ion, mindfulnes­s techniques and relaxation tools. Because when you get out your head, the answers can come very quickly.

We aren’t really taught to do that in everyday life. We’re taught to make sense of the world and understand it. With fears, the more you try to analyse and make sense of it, the more stuck you become.

When is a good time to seek profession­al help?

I would obviously say as soon as possible. What’s the old saying: eat the frog while it’s a tadpole. It’s easier to tackle it before it gets overwhelmi­ng.

The more you try to fight with your feelings, the more out of control and the more fearful you tend to become. Yes, there are things you can do and there are some tools you can make use of. But generally just trying to talk yourself out it doesn’t help, so sooner rather than later would genuinely be my advice.

Before I learned these tools, I thought there were two ways of getting therapy: there was a bearded man with a pocket watch saying you’re feeling sleepy, or there was a bearded man talking about your childhood. I didn’t realise how many tools there are out there that actually can make very fast change.

For more informatio­n on Christophe­r, see christophe­ His new book is available now

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