Building a Phobia From Scratch: Understanding those with a phobia.

Not just a dislike…

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) contains this definition “Phobias are defined as extreme or irrational fears, often persistent, that compel sufferers to avoid the object or situation to which their fear is connected”. Phobias are “extreme”. Phobias are “irrational”. And, most frustrating to their sufferers, we

Phobias are “extreme”. Phobias are “irrational”. And, most frustrating to their sufferers, we

Phobias are “irrational”. And, most frustrating to their sufferers, we

And, most frustrating to their sufferers, we know they are out of all proportion to the threat of the situation or object of our fears!

But have you ever wondered how someone builds a phobia from scratch? After all, we are not born with our phobias, we create them over time. How does that happen?

If you have never created yourself a phobia, you may have a hard time understanding what it is like. Only the other day another well-meaning and kind person told me that they “know how you feel” and “I don’t like it either” when I told them that I used to have emetophobia. I have heard that quite a few times during my life. I have not heard it many times because I hardly ever told anyone about my struggle with it. But most people say something like “oh yes. I hate throwing up. I know what you mean.”

But the reality is, most people DON’T know what I and all the other emetophobic people out there mean. Now that I am recovered – I would say liberated – I wanted to try to come up with a metaphor to help anyone that wants to understand. This is VERY simplified, but maybe it will help others to understand.

The innocent beginnings

I will start with a question.
What do you think about trees?

Awe-in-fall-967x1024 Building a Phobia From Scratch: Understanding those with a phobia.
Not much probably? Maybe you think they are beautiful, majestic. Maybe you take them for granted – sadly many of us do, but that is another topic for a different blog! I have not yet met anyone who told me they are terrified of trees, but sadly there are people out there – the fear is known as dendrophobia. If you are suffering from tree phobia or any other phobia, please contact a Thrive consultant because we can help!

For those of you NOT afraid of trees, imagine then that you wake up one morning, look out of the window and see trees. You are feeling rather down that day, someone close to you has been unkind, the dog is sick, your best friend is in the hospital and a relative recently died. It is the middle of winter and it feels as though you have not seen the sunshine for months.

As you try to get yourself going despite your glum mood, you stare at the trees. You make some coffee and stand at the window. You look at them for a long time and start to notice that they are very tall. One of them has lost a branch and you wonder when and how it fell off. For reasons you cannot pinpoint, you start to wonder what would happen if one of the trees fell on the house. You remember a feature in a local paper that described the destruction to a trailer park when a storm blew down several trees.

Building layers of anxiety

It is time to go out, and you get ready and leave the house. As you travel to work, you seem to notice more trees than you have ever noticed before.

For the rest of the day, there is a voice in your head – your own voice – saying over and over and over again, “trees, trees, trees, trees. Look at the trees!” You feel that you cannot make the voice in your head stop. All day long it is saying the same thing “trees, trees, trees…” As the day wears on the voice gets bolder. Now it is saying “look at all those trees, what if a tree falls on you?” and “what if a tree falls on the children, the dog, your parents…” Then you think, “what if I am driving with Dad – and his driving is awful – and he crashes into a tree and I am with him and it falls on the car and we are both hurt or killed?” The thoughts become more and more elaborate and your anxiety increases.

At the end of the day, you are exhausted. Unable to explain to yourself how you became so focused on trees, you long to go to sleep and get some rest. You’re hoping that you will wake up tomorrow and the voice in your head – your voice – will be gone. Closing your eyes, you drift off, and … start dreaming about trees. Maybe they are moving toward your house, falling on the car, losing limbs in the wind. Waking up from a not very restful sleep, your first thought is “I hope I don’t think about trees today!”

Of course, you IMMEDIATELY start thinking about trees.

The constant hum

This goes on for a few days. Each morning you are more exhausted and more determined that you will not think about trees. You start to believe that maybe you won’t think about trees if you don’t see any trees. You start creating ways to stay home, you don’t open the curtains, you don’t step outside. But the more you think about ways to avoid trees, the more you think about trees.

You feel crazy.

You cannot tell anyone that you are now having anxiety about trees!

And watching movies or TV  is not an option because you might see trees.

Even reading the words “wood”, “forest” and “leaf” starts to cause anxiety because your brain immediately makes the connection to trees. Then you cannot read the word “would” because that makes you think of “wood” and that……

You get the picture.Awe-in-fall-967x1024 Building a Phobia From Scratch: Understanding those with a phobia.

Confirming the fear

Then one day, you do make it out of the house and you see a tree and you panic! They are everywhere! You see far more of them than you ever remember being close to the house before. They look much bigger than you remember and much closer. You suddenly see them all around you and you crouch down near the ground and hide your head to avoid seeing them. You feel stupid and foolish, but you cannot help it. Your partner, friend or other significant other assures you that you don’t need to go out and see trees again.

They get you home, and you stop going out altogether because now you are not just worried about trees, you are worried about acting like a fool and having the neighbors think you are crazy or on drugs.
And now, of course, you are confirming your beliefs that trees are dangerous and that you cannot cope with them, because every time you see one you panic.

Maybe you lose your job, some friends and family members become exasperated. What started off as a glum day, a cup of coffee and looking out the window, has become full-blown tree anxiety.

I chose trees as my example because I happen to be sitting somewhere surrounded by trees. I wondered what it would be like to start to build up a phobia from scratch – as I did as a child. Now replace the trees with any other object of a phobia. Maybe it is wide open spaces (agoraphobia), or spiders (arachnophobia), or vomit (emetophobia).
As you read this story, did you notice that nothing really happened with a tree? It was all thought processes and then avoidance that caused the build-up into an anxiety?

Some common misconceptions:

1. A phobia is caused – at least in part – by a traumatic event related to the object of the fear.
I have spoken to many emetophobics who cannot remember ever throwing up. There are people in Ireland afraid of snakes, even though there are no snakes in Ireland. I do remember a very unpleasant and embarrassing vomiting experience as a child on vacation, but my phobia did not develop until several years later. Also, unlike many emetophobics, I did not develop a fear of embarrassing myself by throwing up in public. I did worry about having a complete mental breakdown in public though!

2. If you get to the root cause of the phobia, you will get better.
I went to countless hours of therapy in search of the Holy Grail of original traumatic experience. I never tracked down a specific experience, although we came up with several theories, and I did not get better (but I did spend a lot of money!) Having someone to talk to who had to still like me whatever I said was nice, but my attachment to my phobia was stubborn.

3. When I threw up, it was my parents’ reaction – it must be that they showed disgust and anxiety – that built a phobia.
I have NO recollection that my parents were anything other than supportive, a matter of fact and kind when my sister was sick (I mention her because I was NEVER sick after that vacation experience!)
My parents DID have other anxieties, so there may have been environmental factors that made me more likely to have anxieties, but there was nothing that I recall that would have made a vomit phobia the likely candidate. AND I did not develop claustrophobia (which my mother suffered), or a fear that the house would burn down or be broken into (my father’s anxieties) although I do have a ritual of mindlessly unplugging electrical appliances in the kitchen!

Thinking ourselves into our phobias – building them from scratch

We develop phobias because of our own thinking, making connections between the object of our fear and fear. We then create anticipatory anxiety by imagining lots of things that could happen even when they haven’t and probably won’t. Finally, we try to control our situation and the things that happen to us instead of building our capacity to cope with whatever happens. It is all about control!

We maintain our beliefs through our confirmation bias, only taking in the experiences that confirm our fears and ignoring the ones that would help refute our beliefs. What does that mean?

Awe-in-fall-967x1024 Building a Phobia From Scratch: Understanding those with a phobia.

Well, for example, I stopped eating mushrooms because I felt unwell after a meal that had mushrooms in it. That happened once and prior to that occasion, I loved mushrooms. I had eaten mushrooms with no ill-effect literally a hundred times.

In adult life, if someone made a meal with mushrooms, I inadvertently ate one, and I noticed that I had eaten it, I would feel sick 10 minutes later, thus confirming my fears. If I made it through the meal without noticing, but later found out that I ate a mushroom or six, I did not feel nauseous later, but instead of deciding that mushrooms are not the cause of nausea, I would come up with other reasons why they did not cause it on that occasion. I ate bread first, or the mushrooms were mixed with potato. Somewhere in the meal was a mushroom antidote. I did not consider that mushrooms were never a problem!

Emetophobics – and other phobics – know that their thoughts and anxieties are out of proportion.

We know that it does not really make sense.

We also know that it is unlikely that someone will throw up in most circumstances and that if they do it will not last forever and we won’t die, but we don’t feel it.

Emetophobics – and other people with phobias – have built up our beliefs to be so strong that it is hard to tear them down… but it is not impossible – as so many of us believe. What we learn we can unlearn.

The Thrive Programme helped me to overcome emetophobia and other anxieties, and it can help you too. For more information about my story, see my two-part blog published earlier this month.

Access my calendar here to book your 30 min introductory session…

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