Arachnophobia reduced in new study

The way people develop fears and phobias has always been a mystery. But a new study gives new hints at how the brain may successfully process a phobia and how dwelling on the phobia is the last thing we should do.

Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, is quite a simple phobia to induce. Show a picture of a whopping big tarantula and boom, the heart rate soars, sweaty palms, the body responds with a phobic reaction.

The new study involved showing arachnophobics very short glimpses of pictures of spiders. By using MRI scans ( its always MRI scans nowadays- the toy of choice- I want one), the brain could be monitored on how it responded to these images. What the researches noted was that the brain reacted in quite a different way to the images if exposed for a short time compared to a longer period. Different parts of the brain were activated. The almost sub conscious glimpse seemed to inspire the brain to reduce its fearful reaction, as if, by not being fully conscious of the image, somehow it was learning to calm its response.

A fear or phobia is often practised, usually unwittingly by the sufferer. The fearful memory or image we have in our minds is often recreated, dredged up, and we end repeating the fear reaction for as many times that we conjure it up. It never gets better, in fact the fear is being embedded. The phobic pathway through the brain is being strengthened, the path is more defined each time it is being used.

The fleeting glimpse of the spider picture, as evidenced by this new study, is being recognised by the unconscious but the body isn’t been given enough time to react. A good long stare at the tarantula would give the phobic patient long enough to access the fear. But the short glimpse gives the brain and body a new experience, an exposure to the trigger without the trigger response. And thus it learns not to be triggered, that the spider is not a threat.

As a hypnotherapist, my take on this is that the important part is not necessarily the brief exposure time but the fact that the body is not reacting. The brain is learning or indeed creating a new pathway, by staying calm through the process of exposure. The new useful pathway is being laid down due to a vital combination of events. Calmness combined with exposure.

So that’s the message today folks, you have heard it before.

Keep calm and carry on.

Andrew Cunningham contributes to the anxiety magazine site Modern Anxiety.

Virtual Reality, Virtigo and Hypnotherapy

Virtual reality is now being used in the treatment of Virtigo.

Contrary to popular belief, Virtigo, is not a fear of heights (acrophobia) but is an unsettling feeling associated with balance which can be triggered by any number of environments. In Hitchcock’s Vertigo the trigger for this swirling dizzy feeling was the climbing of a high staircase which is how Vertigo and a fear of heights became inaccurately linked.

The virtual reality headset is used to gently trigger Virtigo in the sufferer so that that the patient learns how to modify and reduce the reaction. Gentle exposure therapy in a secure environment has been a popular method for many years in psychotherapy. The body and brain becomes trained to reduce its reaction to a certain trigger but in the safety of the consulting room.

Hypnotherapists use the natural virtual reality headset we have in all of us, the imagination. The patient is encouraged to relax, usually to a deeper level than they would normally experience and then a gentle exposure to the trigger is introduced through the internal landscape. Combining a relaxed state with a ‘journey’ through the imagination is a simple and effective way to create calm responses to an otherwise unsettling memory or trigger environment.

Does virtual reality as a therapy tool mean the end of hypnotherapy?

Well, technology certainly is a useful tool to encourage someone to deal with an unpleasant or unsettling environment. Using a headset to treat a symptom can feel more like a game than therapy which, for the patient, is a plus. It has the added bonus of being introduced as the new cure which is administered by the white coat professional, a classic set up for an effective placebo response.

There are many that see hypnotherapy as a step into the unknown where the ‘power of the mind’ is still an off-putting prospect.

This is partly due to continuing scepticism at over-blown claims made by practitioners, thought control, mind control, think yourself rich etc. But also due to the old fears laid down by Freud and often dramatized by Hitchcock, that the subconscious is a scary, dark place that can explode at any moment.

How do you react to alarming health articles? Anxiety?

Did you read this anxiety producing article out today about the risk of sudden death from an undiagnosed faulty heart gene?

According to the British Heart Foundation, 620,000 people in the UK are at risk right now of sudden death due to a faulty gene. That’s right now folks, not next week, today as you read this article.

How are we supposed to react to this news without anxiety? What are we supposed to do? Unless the entire population gets tested immediately how is a ‘sudden death warning’ going to be a warning of any practical help.

Imagine someone shouting out “Fire” in a crowded cinema and then the announcement- “Sudden death is imminent for many of you. There are no fire escapes and more research is needed to make this building safe”.

A warning is useful if you can do something about that warning. But a warning given with no prospect of taking action solely produces anxiety and worry.

Anyone suffering from health anxiety or panic attacks will very likely be adversely effected by this news. Panic attacks thrive on symptoms that mimic heart problems and the chance of ‘sudden death’ is just the news the anxiety needs to ramp up the adrenaline and get the fear muscles working over time.

Increased heart rate (one of the symptoms of the faulty gene) is also one of the main drivers of panic attacks. Awareness of heart rate can easily trigger a self-consciousness about what might be happening in the body. This awareness often increases the heart rate. A vicious cycle of fear and physical symptoms is then produced. The slightest sign of chest pain or breathlessness, can put the sufferer into a spiral of panic.

The mind likes to sort problems – we are problem solving creatures… We have the ability to plan and organise and prepare for many of the looming issues and situations that life can present. We also have the ability to put things off, we would go mad if we had to sort out all possible problems right now. To know that we can deal with something if it happens at a later date is vital to our mental health. This ability to shrug things off is important to our well-being. It gives us the feeling (even if it is an illusion) of control which is calming and allows us to get on with things in the meantime.

Either way, there is plan, sort it now or deal with it later. Immediate problems require immediate action which is why with the headline “Sudden death-more research needed” is a recipe for worry and fear.

My guess is that the article is aimed at the research industry and will indeed encourage ‘more research’. Which is a good thing. Lives will be saved etc.

In the meantime folks, for you and me, it’s…

Another example of Modern Anxiety.

House Of Card Giving Blood Scene


Did you see the episode of House Of Cards where Clare Underwood gives blood. The needle goes right in, no messing. I guess it was genuine. Hard metal going into soft skin, ouch.

I am no needle phobic but watching the needle pierce the skin and a flow of blood down the tube is always a bit alarming. Even less fun if you have a fear of needles.

Maybe seeing someone else getting an injection is easier than the idea of having one yourself but I doubt it. I have treated many needle phobics over the years and just the mention of the needle gets the heart racing, no video needed.

The underside of the arm is a delicate place, soft, sort of private. It’s got veins as well which remind us of razor blades and warm baths, not good. No surprise that we fear the needle. It is a violation of a special place. Combine that with the distrust that many feel about doctors and the way things are done by an uncaring establishment and you get a phobic perfect storm. Hate the phrase but had to use it.

I remember as a child, a whacking big needle going in. My mother watched with alarm. I was more surprised than alarmed but it made quite an impression. Ever since, I have been sympathetic to the needle phobic who needs to be strapped down in order to allow the process to complete.

Even stroking the soft part of the arm is a bit…yuck. Not a nice tickle, maybe it is the thought of all that blood under the surface. Is this grossing you out? Just sharing, you know.

Overcoming the fear, beating the phobia, can be a huge thing for a long term sufferer. It could mean the green light to having a child or important health tests or a gateway to feeling like a normal person. Phobias are normal of course, fear is a human experience but nevertheless reduces our confidence in general.

Trust is such an important factor. Trusting the doctor. The feeling that the needle is not thrust into you by an uncaring world but is all for you, not against you. Also trusting yourself here is important. Trust that you can stay calm, that you deal with a situation that is unpleasant but somehow less than you imagined.

Many phobias appear odd, like a fear of buttons or gravy. But needles makes sense, health anxiety makes sense. The challenge is to accept the weakness and seek to calm the body down thus building trust that you can deal with the situation.

Brilliant how Clare Underwood, the steely President’s wife, smiles her grimace smile throughout. So beautiful, so calm, so cold.

A Therapy business before Google and mobile phones

It’s hard to imagine life before Google and the mobile phone.

When I first started out as a hypnotherapist in 2001 I had the bright idea of getting a posh address. Harley St was the poshest address in London for the healing professions ( and still is)  so I dialled up the words Hypnotherapy and Harley St on a mysterious thing called a search engine.

Years before Google there were a collection of odd websites that you used to search the web. I can remember how disappointing and unappealing the experience was, is this the new world of web? Not very exciting. The early search engines would produce an odd array of results which were rarely matched to what you were looking for. But ‘going on the web’ everyone said, was going to be the future so get with the program Grandad.

I can remember walking around Oxford St in London’s West End and thinking how to promote myself. I had the idea of creating a website to promote myself as a therapist. This was an odd idea at the time. It seems odder now that it was odd then. Up till that point it was Yellow Pages or an advertisement in a paper.

The idea that punters would search ‘online’ for a therapist who had a ‘website’ was pretty novel. The privacy that web searching would give seemed attractive, a private search on a computer for help with your secret fear or worry.  However a website back then seemed a bit cheap, a slightly garish way of promoting a business. Flipping through the Yellow Pages is what people had been doing for so long, going on to a computer to find a professional was definitely odd.

Having a mobile phone back then was pretty unusual too. Business people had Blackberries but ordinary people wouldn’t have a mobile phone, it seemed a bit flash and pretentious. Like pretending to be something in the city, a bit Arthur Daley. I was a therapist not a city trader.

So each day I would check the answerphone in the office by dialling in a code to retrieve any new messages.

Because I was one of the first therapists to have a website and web searches were in their infancy, it was hard to imagine the future of business advertising. It was hard to predict the situation we have now where one click on a Stop Smoking Adwords link costs you £5.

I was lucky because I was early in the game and my site was top of the searches for not much outlay. As Google starting to come through and online searching became the thing to do, my website was well placed. I was king of the therapy pages.

And of course the web got busier and busier, Google got better and better. The ads got more and more expensive and the hoops to go through to get your website seen became more and more demanding. Long gone was a few keywords at the top of the page. Content became king, proper content, not a few links and a keyword in capitals.

In 2005 I had the bright idea of making therapy videos because there was not one informational therapy video on the web at that time!

I sold my first video download in the first minute of going live. However within 12 months Youtube had exploded and grown from a few skateboard clips to a massive free resource. Only the really business savvy would have guessed back then, that giving everything away on Youtube would become a business opportunity.

Giving it all away must still rankle for the world of print let alone the therapy world.

Time Out, the London listings magazine was king for years and was not cheap to buy. Now they pay people to give copies away at Charing Cross station.

How the mighty have fallen.