How To Deal With Phobias Later in Life

From spiders to confined spaces, phobias come in many forms. They can be debilitating – and are also increasingly common later in life. To understand more about phobias and how to treat them, we sat down with a leading hypnotherapist and life coach. Plus, an SL Gold reader shares her hypnosis experience…

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Firstly, what exactly is a phobia?

“According to the NHS, a phobia is an overwhelming and debilitating fear of an object, place, situation, feeling or animal. They develop when a person has an exaggerated or unrealistic sense of danger about a situation or object. Phobias are more pronounced than fears, they are irrational and persistent. Phobias lead people who suffer from them to avoid what they perceive as dangerous, up to the point of changing their lifestyle. People might consider someone’s phobia irrational and completely senseless, but this is not the case for those who are affected. When confronted with the source of the phobia, these people may undergo a great amount of distress, have difficulty breathing, feel their heart racing, suffer from profuse sweating, mouth dryness, light-headedness, or feel a sense of doom. These debilitating symptoms will make the person avoid the situation, creature, or activity that is linked to their phobia as much as physically possible.” – Malminder Gill, hypnotherapist 

Is there always a rational element to a phobia?

“While anxiety, to a certain extent, is rational or backed by logic, phobias aren’t. Feeling anxious is part of the human condition, as we face highly stressful situations on a regular basis, like starting a new job or navigating a break-up. With phobias it is different. People who suffer from phobias experience an extreme form of distress that significantly impacts their lives. They constantly experience an overwhelming feeling of worry and fear, which isn’t natural or healthy. Take the fear of flying as an example. A lot of people might dislike flying and boarding a plane is, for them, a very unpleasant situation. This is due to different reasons, such as vertigo or not having control over the situation. Fear of flying becomes something more serious, a phobia, when the person would not even entertain the idea of taking a plane, and this affects their lifestyle.” – Malminder

What are the most common phobias later in life?

“It’s believed that as you get older, you produce less adrenaline, the hormone linked to the stress response. This can therefore help reduce our fears and phobias as the body reacts differently. That being said, as you age your feelings of vulnerability can increase and so phobias linked to large crowds or heights can become more apparent. A fear of dying is also common. You may have experienced ageing parents passing away or start having friends becoming unwell. As you age, health complications and the reality that you will only live so long can significantly increase someone’s fears around the unknown of death and, in some cases, it can be extreme enough to develop into a phobia.” – Samantha Quemby, certified performance and life coach 

As you age your FEELINGS OF VULNERABILITY can INCREASE and so phobias linked to LARGE CROWDS or HEIGHTS can become more APPARENT.

What about social phobias?

“Two very common phobias in mid-life are agoraphobia and social phobia. Agoraphobia is the extreme and irrational fear of entering crowded places, of leaving one's own home, or of being in places from which escape is difficult. It is usually perceived as the mother of all fears, the “fear of everything”, because it can, theoretically, apply to any situation perceived as difficult to escape by the person affected. Those who suffer from agoraphobia tend to perceive any situation as a situation where escape might be difficult or where help is unavailable if things go wrong. This leads them to feel paralysed, and most of the people who suffer from agoraphobia become prisoners of their own home, unable to leave it to socialise or even complete simple tasks like picking their children up from school. Social phobia, also known as social anxiety, is the intense fear of social situations. This is different from just being shy, as it heavily impacts and disrupts one’s life. Social phobia can be so severe that people who suffer with it avoid undertaking even the simplest social interactions – like answering the phone in public places – without having a panic attack. Social phobia eventually takes a toll on one’s relationship, career, and life in general. Like other forms of phobia, this usually begins at childhood or adolescence and accelerates later in life.” – Malminder

Why do phobias develop later in life – is there any science behind it?

“Many fears and phobias are childhood-specific and tend to disappear as we age. Nonetheless, when a trauma from childhood remains unresolved, it can trigger phobic responses that we learned earlier in life. It’s not uncommon that the patterns of fear and phobia change with age. This is due to different factors, some of which are physical; for instance, changes in hormones, physical and mental activity can affect how we deal with fears. Another reason why phobias can worsen with time is that, as we age, we tend to mould our lives towards safety, security and routine. This balance is constantly threatened by life events, and the inability to manage the possibility of disruption can cause anxiety and possibly lead to phobias.” – Malminder

At what point should you seek help?

“Many people have phobias which they live with as they don’t impact their daily life. If, however, your phobias bring on extreme reactions such as panic attacks or cause you to significantly limit your life experiences, seek professional support. For example, if a fear of flying is impacting your social life, fun and relationships, then it’s time to seek help. At the same time, someone who has an intense fear of public speaking may find it inhibits their ability to perform well in their job and could therefore benefit from support.” – Samantha 

As we age, we mould our lives towards SAFETY, SECURITY and ROUTINE, and this balance is CONSTANTLY THREATENED by life events.

What are your treatment options?

“Psychotherapy is one of the most popular ways to treat phobias. The two main forms of psychotherapy are exposure therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. In exposure therapy, the person is gradually and repeatedly exposed to the source of fear. Its aim is to help the person change their response to a particular thing, event or situation. While cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) also makes use of exposure therapy, it is based on the principle that thoughts, beliefs, feelings and behaviours are all interconnected. During CBT, the therapist works with the patient to destroy the thought pattern behind a specific fear. New ways to cope with the anxiety-provoking thing or event are learnt, and different responses are generated.” – Malminder

What about alternative forms of therapy?

“The logical mind is not involved when it comes to phobias, your phobic reaction comes from your subconscious, either from learned behaviour (something modelled by a parent perhaps, which a child took on) or a previous trauma. This means treatment needs to be targeted at both the subconscious mind and also the root cause. Two powerful ways to do this is through emotional freedom technique (EFT) or hypnosis. EFT is an energy psychology that uses acupressure points on the face and body to clear emotional stress and physical symptoms. Due to the heightened stress response and feeling of anxiety and fear that often come when a phobia is experienced or thought about, EFT is a powerful tool to work with such emotions and reduce or eliminate their intensity. As phobias can be linked to traumatic experiences or even mask other issues, EFT is a great way to explore this and get to the root of the problem rather than simply treating the presenting issues of the phobia.” – Samantha

Does hypnotherapy really work?

“Yes – hypnotherapy can be very effective, especially to overcome phobias like phonophobia (fear of sound) and samhainophobia (fear of Halloween). There are several studies suggesting that hypnotherapy can be as effective as systematic desensitisation (a type of exposure therapy based on the principle of classical conditioning) in overcoming phobias. Guided hypnosis works with phobias as it gets into the cause of the phobia on a subconscious level and changes the person’s conditioned response to it (or in other words, the negative thought pattern that is related to developing a specific phobia).” – Malminder 

Finally – are there any helpful resources to know?

“To find a practitioner, try the British Hypnotherapy Association and for support in using EFT look at The Tapping Solution. For information on understanding trauma and how it’s stored in the body, Bessel Van Der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps The Score, is worth reading.” – Samantha

“I’ve covered the topic of phobias extensively on my blog and on my Instagram channel, but also check out @DLCAnxiety. Don’t dismiss social media – it can be helpful and liberating to learn about fears, anxiety and phobias in a less clinical environment and via easy-to-digest content. When it comes to books, Untangle Your Anxiety by Dean Stott and Joshua Fletcher, and Greater Than Panic by Dean Stott are great.” – Malminder

Don’t dismiss SOCIAL MEDIA – it can be HELPFUL and LIBERATING to learn about FEARS, ANXIETY and PHOBIAS in a less CLINICAL ENVIRONMENT.

SL Gold reader Sue shares her experience of using hypnotherapy to overcome a fear of claustrophobia…

“It was around 15 years ago, while on holiday in Turkey, that my first experience of feeling claustrophobic hit me. For the first 50 years of my life, I had often feared heights and the dark, but had never experienced the kind of panic that overcame me as I lay in the hotel spa having what was supposed to be a relaxing facial. All the therapist had done was try to place a piece of gauze over my face when I literally sat bolt upright, heart beating and palms sweating, and told her to stop.

“From that day on, anything that came near covering any part of my face induced the same reaction – from going to the dentist to having a mask over my eyes during a massage. The same kind of fear came over me more recently when I had to have an MRI scan on my knee – how far into the machine would I have to go? Could I keep my arms out? 

“The thought of a full MRI for, say, a brain scan, completely terrified me. I knew I would never be able to do it unless I was sedated. I was explaining this to a friend who suggested I try hypnotherapy and she recommended I see Malminder Gill.

“A week before my face-to-face appointment, I had a 20-minute consultation with Malminder over the phone where I explained my issues and she tried to discover the root of the problem and find out what I was hoping to achieve. This would help her prepare for our session.

“Malminder explains how the session works. She tells me nearly all forms of fears, panic attacks and phobias can be treated with hypnotherapy, but she also explains that one session is not enough and that most patients tend to need between six and eight appointments before they see any results. 

“I arrive at her Harley Street practice slightly apprehensive and, to be completely honest, somewhat terrified too. That doesn’t last long, as Malminder is utterly charming. We start with the 7/11 breathing technique where I had to breathe in for a count of seven and out for a count of 11 – this went on for five minutes, after which Malminder started guiding me into a state of hypnosis, using relaxation techniques. I remember hearing her voice but, even after coming out of it, I did not remember anything she had said. Did it work? Well, yes, I did go off into a very peaceful state of mind.

“Would I be happy to go into an MRI scanner? She told me I needed to practise the breathing technique regularly and get my mind into that state of awareness and peace of mind. I have continued with the breathing and it is very relaxing and is a trick I now use if I am struggling with getting to sleep. But to nail the claustrophobia once and for all, I would need to see Malminder several more times.”

For more information or to book an appointment with Malminder, visit Hypnosis-In-London.com and follow @SamanthaQuembyCoaching

 

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