This year’s UK season of ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’ has been dominated by the hysterics of one TV nutritionist Gillian McKeith. Set in the Jungle, the show expects celebs to tackle a range of tasks, usually involving creepy crawlies, in return for food. This year McKeith has dominated the headlines by her anxiety attacks and fainting live on television.
But what is a phobia? I guess the best place to start is that anxiety and fear is a normal part of life. Just because you get anxious doesn’t mean you have a phobia. In fact some animals, like snakes, spiders and small fury animals we are all born wary of. It’s a kind of genetic memory past down the generations of creatures best avoided.
For something to be classed as a phobia though there must be other things going on. In particular, the person must be making efforts to avoid the feared object, and such avoidance is in itself disabling to the person. For example if you were scared of snakes and avoided going outside in case you saw one, than this would have a huge impact on your life. By not going outside you also fail to learn that snakes are not to be found routinely in the UK, and if you would come across one, that you could cope with the anxiety. The avoidance, in other words, maintains the problem.
People with phobias also have a negative self talk which tends to exaggerate the threat they are avoiding. In the case of snake phobias it might be to exaggerate the chances that the snake would attack the person, bite them, and they would die. In reality snakes are quite shy creatures and unlikely to attack unless cruelly provoked. Even if a snake did attack, few are lethal, etc.
As you can imagine, once a phobia has been established, it has every chance of maintaining itself. So how are phobias treated?
Well the first thing a therapist would do is to challenge and test the negative and exaggerated self talk the person has concerning their fear. If the person can, even intellectually, realise their fears are irrational, they are half way there.
The second thing is to introduce the feared object in a very gradual and controlled way. In the case of the snake phobia I might tell a client there is a snake in a secure box in the room next door. The person’s anxiety will usually go through the roof. Instead of turning away from the anxiety we stay with it. After a while the anxiety starts to go away and the person learns that they don’t have to avoid the feared object for the anxiety to abate. Over time the feared object is brought closer – always with the client’s consent – until they have no anxiety at all while in close contact with the object.
As distressing as phobias are, they are some of the easiest psychological problems to treat. What is great about helping someone to beat a phobia is that they learn they don’t have to be scared of anxiety any more. Once you’ve lost your fear of fear, you can just about do anything in life!
Dr Phil Tyson is a Men's Psychotherapist based in Manchester in the UK. He offers:
- Group therapy weekends for men in London and Manchester
- Beginners meditation weekend retreats for men in London and Manchester
- Counselling for men in Manchester
- Psychotherapy for men in Manchester
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (cbt) for men in Manchester
- Telephone and online counselling for men wherever you live
- Supervision and consultative support for therapists in Manchester
Dr Tyson is also regularly quoted in the printed media and as a guest on local and national broadcast media.