Hypnosis and Phobias Part 2

Following on from the last article, I'd like to relate how hypnosis can be used in helping a phobia sufferer to overcome their fear and to rid them of their debilitating problem for good.

But first, before I even begin to plunge into very deep waters surrounding Freudian psychological theories, I should explain the most popularly understood use of hypnosis with phobias.

And why I believe it does NOT work!

The commonly accepted method of treating phobias is to get the person who is suffering from their unexplained fear to face that fear and to learn to deal with it. On the face of it, that would seem a logical way of dealing with something that has no logical explanation.

Arachnophobia Example

Let's take a common example. Why would a perfectly healthy, fully grown man of sound mind and judgment and of average or above average intelligence be terrified of a tiny, harmless spider?

To someone who is not a sufferer of arachnophobia, this behaviour would seem absurd. But to the sufferer, it is not only a very real fear, but it would have the negative psychological effect of making him feel belittled and pathetic in front of his friends. To this man though, the fear is so real and tangible he cannot explain why he has it. After all, a tiny harmless spider could not threaten his safety in any way, so it cannot be explained away as an instinctive fear of being fatally stung by a venomous creature.

And there is that simple explanation as to what a phobia is. An unexplained fear of something that should not warrant being feared, yet no matter how illogical it may be, it is very real to the sufferer.

So the mainstream (if it can be called that) method of trying to help that man overcome his irrational fear of spiders is to bring him face to face with his greatest fear in the hope that familiarity will over time create an anaesthetizing effect when he comes into contact with a spider in the future.


Hypnosis is used to relax the man and allow the hypnotist to suggest to his subconscious that he is no longer afraid of spiders and that in fact he is quite comfortable when in the presence of a spider etc. Then the man is gradually introduced to a very large spider. First he will be placed in the same room as the spider in it's glass tank. Then over a period of days, the spider in it's tank will be placed closer and closer to the man until the day when he will be able to take the spider out of it's tank and actually handle it without fear.

A fine and logical theory that does have some positive results. Not always, of course, but in some cases that does remove the fear of spiders.

But, what is not taken into consideration in that kind of therapy is the original psychological reason that man had the irrational fear, or phobia of spiders in the first place.

That is where Freudian psychotherapy theories and techniques come into play. Freud theorised that for a person to display an irrational fear of an everyday object or situation, which to the rest of us would seem perfectly safe and normal, there would have to have been an incident of sufficiently extreme emotional trauma early on in that person's life to have left a permanent mark on that person's psyche right into adulthood.

I'll elaborate on that later, because it's quite enough to take in at the moment.

So we'll assume the arachnophobic man did indeed suffer an extremely traumatic event early on in his life. For whatever reason that event was buried deep in his subconscious mind because it was perhaps too terrible for his young, immature mind to deal with at the time. As an adult, that traumatic buried memory would begin to manifest in a way so as not to reveal it's true nature, in order to preserve the person's mental balance, or even his sanity.

Conscious vs Unconscious

But before I go on, I should explain a little about what is understood about the conscious and unconscious parts of the human mind.

The unconscious part of the mind, is not associated with having the power of rationality as does our consciousness, but is much more basic in that respect. The function of the conscious mind is to accomplish higher thoughts, rationalise situations, employ logic and reason to solve problems and make decisions. On a conscious level, we are actually able to perform one or two functions at the same time. Think about it. Can you add up a list of numbers while simultaneously working out how to program your DVD recorder at the same time as writing your shopping list? Not easily. Your conscious is very good at making decisions and rationalising, but it cannot perform many things at once.

On the other hand, the function of the subconscious (or unconscious) part of the mind is much more basic, but it is able to control the multitudinous bodily functions simultaneously. Think of it as controlling everything your body does, such as heartbeat, body temperature, breathing rate, digestion, elimination, cell creation and growth, organ functions, hormone production and release, healing, fighting infections and diseases... the list goes on. It's ability to rationalise is therefore compromised by it's being able to multi-function. However, it also controls things like memory storage and recall, protection of the "self" or self-preservation, tells you when you need to sleep and eat and if you need to escape from or face danger, otherwise known as the "fight or flight response". On its most basic level therefore, your subconscious keeps you safe and alive.

The Point

Where am I leading with all of this?

Well, should a sufficiently traumatic even happen to you in your life that your subconscious deems to be potentially hazardous to your very safety, then it takes action to protect you. One way of doing this is by slamming the lid down on the memory of any traumatic event it deems to be so extreme as to be potentially threatening to your very sanity.

To give you an example of how this works, it quite often happens that road crash victims that survive often wake up in their hospital beds and cite having no memory of the actual crash. They may remember getting into the car and driving off down the road, then their next memory is of waking up in hospital. The part in between is suppressed from memory, because the subconscious has repressed it to protect the victim. Otherwise how would a person deal with the actual memory of the car colliding with, say a lamp post and they being hurled through the windscreen. How would their psyche deal with recalling how the actual physical sensation of glass ripping through their skin, their body thrown across the bonnet of the car and onto the road. So the subconscious represses that memory, so the person doesn't have to deal with it while they get on with the more important job of healing.

Extreme Mental Trauma

So what does that all have to do with the arachnophobic?

Plenty. When a person has suffered an extreme trauma, be it physical or mental (as in the case of mental or sexual abuse in childhood), the memory of the actual event is repressed. As far as the person is concerned, the event never happened. But the subconscious knows it did happen and although it tries to keep it concealed from the conscious thoughts, certain events may trigger the release of a part of the emotion that was buried along with it's associated memory of the trauma.

That emotion takes the form of an irrational fear of something that most people would take for granted.

The phobia!

So the reason why I don't believe that facing your fear will necessarily cure it, is that if that fear, or phobia is caused by a deeply buried emotionally charged memory of an extreme traum, then by trying to remove the "symptom", which is the best way to describe the phobia, the cause is still left where it is.

And it will simply find another avenue of escape. By manifesting further down the line as another phobia, in what is known as "symptom substitution".

And that is the subject of the next instalment.

Terry Didcott