Fears & phobias: why do they happen and how can you overcome them?

"Stage fright? Why on earth would you be scared? You've got a fantastic voice, just get up there and show it off!"

The cry of many well-meaning friends, family, acquaintances, teachers and coaches over the course of the years I've been singing. In fact I said it to myself many times as well, to try and reason myself into not being scared.

The truth is, whatever your particular trigger... spiders, flying, balloons, supermarkets, public speaking, singing teachers... fear is not rational. Quite a relief when I found that out!

Why do we feel afraid of things we shouldn't?

The problem is, our evolutionary programming and the modern world can get a bit mixed up in a not-so-helpful way.

Fear lives in the oldest and most primitive part of our brains, the limbic system. This part of the brain is hard-wired to respond to perceived threat before it even has chance to register in our rational minds - so by the time you realise there's no need to be scared, it's too late - that fight or flight response has already kicked in! You know the feeling - surge of adrenaline, pounding heart, feeling shaky, cold sweats... Of course sometimes, that's a really good thing - it's good to be scared of a car bearing down on you as you're crossing the road, so you instinctively run out of the path of danger. It's probably wise to be scared if you're confronted with a lion - the sudden release of stress hormones and adrenaline the brain gives you might just help you make a run for it in time to avoid becoming dinner!

Our primitive brain is very adept at matching up patterns or templates of things that it perceives as a threat - although it isn't very good at matching these patterns accurately or rationally. Sometimes, it will even pattern-match things that are completely harmless, but in some vague way resemble something that has made us scared in the past (and it can be a very vague association!).

Now each time this pattern (or something similar) crops up, our fight or flight response is activated - we get scared. Each time we get scared, our brain remembers that this thing is something to be frightened of (even if it isn't) - so with every scary experience, the problem compounds itself.

On top of this, the more stressed and anxious we are in general, the worse this fear response is (and of course getting cross with ourselves about our fears makes us feel even more stressed!). You can see how easy it is for phobias to elevate to the completely unmanageable - for example one bad social experience leading to a panic attack and eventually being afraid of leaving the house.

So what can you do?

Some people swear by exposure therapy, and this can work well if you're able to confront the thing causing the fear easily in the first place and learn that it doesn't harm you - but that isn't easy or practical for everyone and it can make things worse.

Firstly, reducing your general levels of stress is a major step on the road to overcoming irrational fears. Have you ever noticed you can rationalise things better when you're in a good place mentally? In Clinical Hypnotherapy we put a lot of work into helping you empty your mental 'stress bucket' by restoring healthy sleep patterns and encouraging a more positive mindset. This in itself can often help clients make fantastic progress with fears and unwanted patterns of behaviour.

Where fears are deep-rooted we also use more powerful techniques to address those inappropriate 'templates' in a safe and non-confrontational way - so without actually having to face the thing that is causing that feeling of dread, we can reprogram your brain and teach it to 'forget' the threat and remove those harmful templates for good. They get moved to the conscious part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex) where you have complete control over them - so you can face them in a rational way next time round!

If you want to overcome a fear, phobia, negative behaviour or habit - or just generally want to feel more in control of your life - Solution Focused Hypnotherapy can help with just about anything. I'd be delighted to answer any questions or discuss any particular issues if you'd like some advice - just get in touch!

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