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Hypnosis And Phobias

by Kate McEwen(more info)

listed in hypnosis, originally published in issue 204 - March 2013

A phobia is an ‘irrational’ fear. A person suffering from a phobia will experience an exaggerated fear response akin to a panic attack when confronted by a particular entity or situation and, in some circumstances, they will develop a fear of the panic attack itself, ensuring that the original phobia grows arms and legs.


The list of what frightens (or might frighten) an individual is endless and includes, but is not limited to fear of:

  • An item such as a button, a needle or even a specific type of building e.g. a church;
  • An animal, insect or arachnid of any sort (beyond the natural fear of poisonous or dangerous creatures);
  • A situation or experience such as being in an enclosed space, in the dark, social situations, flying or visiting the dentist.

The sufferer (phobic) is aware, usually, at a ‘common sense’ level, that their fear is irrational; however this knowledge does not help the individual to reduce or eliminate the terror reaction and, in some cases, the phobic can be so debilitated that their life is completely constrained, for example in the case of the chronic agoraphobic who may live their life within their comfort zone which, at worst, can be a single room.

The phobic will not be able to ‘get over’ their fear simply by facing up to it or being told to ‘get on with it’ though there are desensitization courses available which can help to gradually introduce the phobic to the locus of their fear, such as with spiders or snakes. Unfortunately however, many individuals with such fears will not attend such an opportunity as they fear the experience which the positive outcome might bring - a ‘Catch 22’ situation.

This is where hypnotherapy can be invaluable.

In hypnosis, the client’s conscious, critical analytical part of the mind (the mind which knows the fear is irrational) is gently sidelined (to a greater or lesser degree depending on the depth of hypnosis). In this altered state of awareness the client becomes more open, and responsive, to suggestion. Furthermore the state of hypnosis generates hypermnesia i.e. an increased ability to recall detail from the past.

The client will then be encouraged to recall an earlier, extremely positive experience and, having done so, persuaded to relive that experience as if it were happening in the moment, thus allowing them to reconnect with all the positive, powerful, confidence building feelings and sensations they experienced in the past.

These sensations will then be ‘anchored’ by suggesting to the client that they say quietly into themselves a given word, or the therapist may suggest they employ a small physical gesture such as rubbing two fingers together.

The therapist will then guide the client to be aware of their current experience of deep relaxation (hypnosis) and the accompanying sensations of tranquillity and peace and ‘anchor’ these feelings by use of another word or physical gesture.

The client is then equipped with tools for practice both during the session and post hypnotically in order that they are enabled to both bolster confidence and, at the same time, relax spontaneously utilizing these predetermined signals.

The next step is to provide the hypnotized client with the suggestion that they have a screen in front of them over which they have complete control. They can fast forward, rewind, pause and switch off. This ensures that the client does not fear sudden confrontation with the loathsome entity or situation.

The client will then be supported by the therapist to gradually introduce the locus of their fear. How this is done, however, depends on the type of phobia.

If the fear is of an object or creature, then the locus of fear can be gently introduced via the screen whilst the therapist encourages use of the confidence and relaxation tools, as mentioned above, allowing the client to progress at a pace which they find comfortable, knowing that if they become disturbed they can simply switch off or pause what is happening on the screen.

This has the added benefit of dissociating the client from the situation - i.e. they are experiencing it one step removed. In a measured fashion, the client can permit themselves to approach the feared entity.  At the same time, it can be useful if the therapist makes positive suggestions about whatever the client fears, though this can be more difficult for some things than others. It can be hard to find anything very positive to say about slugs for instance!

When this has been achieved (obviously the therapist questions the client during this part of the session to ensure that positive steps are being taken), the client may be encouraged to future pace i.e. to visualize themselves in the future, dealing with their previous feared item or animal, insect or whatever, whilst all the time remain calm, relaxed and in control.

If, on the other hand, the fear is of something such as a visit to the dentist, the client is encouraged again by use of a screen, to see themselves after they have been through the experience, so that they are able to look back at the film on the screen of everything that happened leading up to, during and after their visit including use of the pre-anchored signals, understanding that there is no need to be afraid, since the visit has already happened. They are creating a memory of their future which serves to inform the conscious mind when they return to the normal waking state.

At this point in the process, the hypnotherapist will have merely been utilizing suggestion therapy to help to support the client in dealing with their problem and this may be all that is required to bring about a permanent alteration in the client’s thinking and behaviour. However, the changes thus secured are only likely to be enduring if the original source of the fear has, somehow, been resolved during the preceding years.

When this is the case the inappropriate behavioural response is known as an ‘empty’ habit and suggestion therapy and, indeed the desensitization courses mentioned earlier can, alone, be successful.

In most instances, though, the change may only be a temporary conditioning which will necessitate at least one further session in which the therapist will utilize tools of analysis in order to identify and depotentiate the original source of the fear.

When a therapist employs hypnoanalytical techniques the intention is to allow the subject’s unconscious mind (the repository of all the memories of all the things they have ever experiences) to identify the root source of the problem. This is usually some traumatic event from childhood or even learned behaviour from a significant other in the child’s life.

Sterile language is essential at this juncture. Though there may be apparently obvious reasons for the fear, it is the part of the mind that knows the individual even better than they know themselves which has the key to why the phobia developed in the first place. Hypnoanalysis, applied properly permits the client’s unconscious to present, without interference, something which will assist the client to realize where their fear originated.

Once identified, the client is encouraged, as before during the positive recall mentioned earlier, to step back into the memory and reconnect with the feelings and emotions of the time. The therapist requires to be very supportive of the client at this point in the session as the recall may be emotionally fraught. The client should be encouraged to vent the emotion, thus depotentiating the incident, though occasionally a client will simply experience an ‘ah ha’ moment.

Where the client experiences a cathartic reaction however, the process is repeated until the client can look at the original memory without negative feelings or strong emotion. They can then assess whether the response they had at the earlier time is still appropriate for the present and, if not, delete the programming from their mindset.

The memory can then be shrunk down, faded into black and white or sepia and placed quietly 'somewhere' intangible within themselves, with the client understanding that the incident has lost all power to hurt or affect them.

Use of this process means that the release of the phobia is permanent.

If, however, the entire process was as simple as it sounds, there would be no requirement for specialist training in the application of hypnoanalysis! Every case is different however and the use of hypnoanalysis to help resolve a phobia is an area of great skill and responsibility on the part of the therapist. Do not try this at home!

Case Study - Fear of Cats – An ‘Ah Ha’ Moment

A lady came to see me a number of years ago as she was finding that her fear of cats was beginning to limit her life severely.  She was phobic to the point of not even being able to talk about cats or use the word ‘cat’ or ‘feline’. Desensitization during the first session had only a limited degree of effect.

Under hypnosis, during the second session however, her unconscious brought to mind an incident when she was about four years old. She was in the kitchen at home and her uncle went into a drawer and took out a soft ball of wool. He lobbed it at her, at the same time calling out, ‘watch out, it’s a cat’! The wool hit her on the side of the head. She burst into tears with the fright and her mother and a friend started to laugh at her.

How did that child feel?  Traumatized.  OK, the reader may think that the incident wasn’t that scary but the combination of events made it so for that child and the impact was heightened by the memory being repressed.  Now that memory might have remained repressed forever, but somewhere in her life the client probably experienced some further negative input related to cats which triggered the fear response even though she was not aware of the original memory.

Under hypnosis however, she was able to do what many of us wish we could do, and that is bring hindsight into the equation. At that time, in her early 60s, the client was able to reassess the whole ‘wool’ incident and recognize that the ‘uncle’ was actually only about 14 (an adult to a child of 4) at the time of the incident and was just really being a silly wee boy and that her mother and friend weren’t laughing at her, merely trying to ease the situation with a bit of levity.

She was able to recognize from the vantage point of age that whilst the fear response at four years old might have been appropriate to the situation, it was no longer appropriate to her adult life. She faded the memory, allowed her subconscious to reprocess her responses and became cat phobia free.

She then went to Cyprus for a holiday where there is a problem with stray cats - and didn’t bat an eyelid when she encountered any number of them. I think this speaks for itself.


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About Kate McEwen

Kate McEwen BA(Hons) - Director & Principal Trainer has been in practice as a hypnotherapist, in partnership with John McEwen, since 1999 during which time she has been privileged to work with thousands of clients. Firstly as a partner at Corsebar Hypnotherapy Centre, Paisley, Kate currently practises as a partner in B9 Hypnotherapy, Argyll. In 2004, with a back ground in lecturing in further and higher education spanning 22 years, Kate took over the training remit for the National Society of Professional Hypnotherapists and is the principal trainer at the Scottish School of Hypnotherapy. She is a Member of the National Society of Professional Hypnotherapists (MNSPH), Senior Qualified Hypnotherapist - General Hypnotherapy Register (SQHP), Member of the National Council of Psychotherapists (MNCP), Member of the Hypnotherapy Association and Member of the Advisory Council of, and Postgraduate trainer for, the NSPH. Kate may be contacted on Tel: 01369-820172;

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