The Neuroscience of Phobias

The Neuroscience of Phobias


Millions of humans suffer from fears, phobias and anxiety. These fears can be highly limiting and often a phobic will create new phobias on top of their original phobia; their fear of talking to strangers evolves into a fear of stepping out of the house.

A large amount of new research is in the study behind the reason of phobias, anxieties and fears and what happens in the brain when someone feels fear. Psychologists are asking key questions; Is a phobia a learnt behaviour? Are phobias passed down in our DNA from phobic relatives? Are phobias a natural defensive system that all humans possess?

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Recent research highlights the possibility that we may be biologically prepared to be phobic of certain things, but we need to learn the phobic response through observational learning.  This means children who have a phobic parent are more likely to become phobic themselves if the phobia is one that we are biologically prepared to fear.

Today we look at how a phobia or fear becomes stronger and how we can break that cycle to become phobic free.


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The Mind of a Phobic


The brain in very complex. We will use a very basic explanation of brain to explain how a phobic can become phobic free.

There are 3 key parts to the brain; The Reptilian Brain – this controls our breathing, hart rate, our fight or flight controller and all the basics we need to live. The Limbic Brain which holds the Amygdala – this is our emotional response system and deals with our fear emotions, memories, and arousal. The Neocortex– this is our perspective, our consciousness, this is where we develop language and use our imagination. We can use this part of the brain to question the initial responses from the amygdala which gives us self control.

Dave was walking his dog in a park late one evening, it was the same park he had read about in his local paper. The paper had described how two people had recently been mugged, with one being severely beaten. As he was walking along the path, he felt the presence of someone running towards him. He immediately felt threaten as his Amygdala sent an automatic emotional warning response to his body. Unconsciously the mind took in millions of pieces of information through his various senses, and his Neocortex brain fed back to the Amygdala that there was no threat, reducing Daves anxiety. The runner ran passed Dave giving him a small friendly wave.


The Brains Phobic Cycle


The two parts of the brain, the limbic system and the neocortex work collectively with phobias, fears and anxieties. The spider phobic (arachnophobia) will see a spider, the amygdale in the limbic brain sends an emotional fear response to the body, the neocortex brain backs up the fear with evidence the spider is walking towards us, this increases the fear response in the amygdale, creating a cycle until you, in most cases run away.

This system becomes automatic. The more you think about the spider, the fear and the running away (the running away leads to a positive emotional feeling once you realise you are safe) the more embedded this process becomes. The process becomes embedded because the brains connections can grow and become stronger, so fear becomes an unconscious and automatic response to the stimulus, in this case the spider.

The neocortex creates pathways (or short cuts) in the mind by firing electrical signals, this allows us to respond quicker next time we are faced with a similar situation. You start to run before you consciously see the spider. In many instances this can be life saving, for you none arachnophobics replace spider with a lion or man with gun. The amygdala is the key element in associated learning, as it gives an emotional response to a stimulus which could be visual, auditory, smell, taste or touch.


Primary Emotions


Our primary emotions are Anger, Fear, Pleasure, Sadness and Disgust. These emotions are designed to help us survive and were highly useful to our primeval ancestors. Our brain can remember emotional significant events, a once dog phobic can learn to have an automatic pleasure response to a dog though repetitive positive experiences.

This proves that people can overcome phobias, learn how to focus on the positives of a common situation rather than the negatives and learn how to become stress free in what were past stressful situations.

Survival is the reason why we make rapid responses to a certain stimulus. If we place a poisonous food in our mouth we will feel disgust and spit out the poison. Next time we forage for food and came across the same plant our brain will send us an automatic signal – disgust, which stops us from putting the food anywhere near our mouths. We don’t even have to think about the situation “was this the plant that made me sick?” this automatic response is so rapid, that we don’t even question it.

But sometimes we build up responses that were once useful to us or responses learnt from others (seeing someone else’s disgust expression on their face when with a certain stimulus can be enough to make us feel disgust when we face the same stimulus a couple of days later) that are not useful or no longer useful. In these situations we need to change the pathways and our responses to give us a new option.



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Pattern Interrupts


To overcome your fears, anxieties and phobias you need to break the pattern. Once the pattern is broken you can observe yourself and the situation from a new perspective which creates change, creating a new pathway or automatic response. This new response once repeated both consciously through visualisations (hypnosis works well for this) will become your automatic response.


Neuroplasticity is the term for a change in neural pathways and synapses (the connections in your brain) which are changed due to changes in behaviour, as the brain continually adjusts due to new experiences and memories.


You can break patterns through simple task such as taking deep breaths, laughing, taking on a new perspective, changing the submodalities in your mind and through expressing your feelings in words.


Once you change the neuropathways you can create a new positive response. The once arachnophobic can feel calmness when they see a spider.

These 5 steps will help you create personal changes.


1. Pick an automatic response you want to change; reaction to spiders.

2. Think about this situation – this may play out like a movie in your mind

3. Interrupt the pattern;

  • Take 10 deep breaths which will help you relax and feel emotionally different
  • If the image is a movie, pause the movie, change the coloured image to black and white and move the stilled image away from you
  • Force yourself to laugh while remembering this event
  • Observe yourself in the situation and question your reactions, the cause of your response and become aware of the differences you feel at an emotional level when you take a different perspective
  • Reframe the event by checking different perspectives. With spider phobic’s, they tell me “I’m scared of spiders” I ask “even spiders that are in a different house? Even teeny tiny spiders? Even carton spiders?” by changing the generalisation of the situation you change how your mind responds to the stimulus
  • Visualise yourself in the future feeling cool, calm and confident in the situation. Make this movie big, bright and loud – imagine it as if you are really there, feeling great

4. Repeat this often, as repetition is the key to learning a new skill. In hypnosis the change is quick as your mind creates memories faster when you mind wonders.

5. In real life if you find yourself falling into a negative routine, use one of the suggestions from step 3.



For some people the changes will be made rapidly for others it may take a little longer. As you start to think differently about a situation seeing a spider, you start to change the neuroplasticity creating new pathways in your mind, creating a new emotional response.


Chris Delaney NLP Life Coach, Hypnotherapist and Career Advisor is available for booking for One to One Private Sessions, Group Training Sessions and Public Speaking Events


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Chris Delaney NLP Life Coach, Hypnotherapist and Career Advisor is available for booking for One to One Private Sessions, Group Training Sessions and Public Speaking Events

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