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Biology of a Phobia

Updated: Jul 3, 2019

Phobias by definition are irrational fears; if we run away from a tidal wave or a man-eating tiger, no-one would say we have a phobia because it’s a rational thing to do. The unconscious and the conscious mind are in perfect agreement about the right course of action.

Phobias cause distress because they create internal conflict: the unconscious sends along fears which the conscious mind sees as either irrational or as an overreaction to the level of threat. For example, it’s reasonable to be careful around fire or to escape from a burning building, but if you can’t stay in the same room when birthday candles are lit or even look at a picture of a burning flame then you probably have a phobia.

A phobia is an overwhelming fear and anxiety, which is triggered by a very specific and consciously recognised situation such as spiders, closed spaces, flying etc. when triggered it causes a stress response in our bodies.

Anxiety developed for a good evolutionary reason, if we go into an unfamiliar situation, or one that might be dangerous, it’s wise to be extremely careful and ready to deal with whatever might happen

Our unconscious mind has two roles:

1. To keep us alive and

2. To reduce our anxiety

However they are in this order and therefore if our unconscious mind has a belief that the anxiety will keep us safe, then it will create anxiety

Anxiety makes us ‘hyper-vigilant’, in other words we are super-sensitive to changes around us, especially noises and movement, this means we are more likely to detect a threat or predator if there is one around and we can bring about a ‘stress response’ quickly to help us avoid it or protect ourselves.

Most of the stresses faced by our primitive ancestors were short, sharp shocks: the sort of danger that occurs if a predator attacks or a rock fall happens. To survive, they either had to be able to escape as quickly as possible or to fight off the threat.

Over time they evolved what we now refer to as ‘the stress response’ or otherwise known as ‘fight or flight’, to help them to do this.

The fight or flight reaction is still a part of us; in times of stress, our bodies release stress hormones which make physical changes in the way our bodies operate. The stress response triggers the release of chemicals called catecholamines; these include hormones like adrenaline and cortisol which affect many different systems within the body.

The Short-term Effects of Stress:


  • Digestion of sugars – To get as much sugar into the

  • blood as possible to give a surge of energy

  • Heart rate and blood pressure – To get as much blood pumping around the body as quickly as possible

  • Breathing rate – To get as much oxygen around the body as quickly as possible

  • Blood supply to muscles, especially in the arms & legs -the muscles required to either fight or flight

  • Blood clotting ability - To reduce lethal bleeding


  • Sensitivity to pain

  • Digestion (except sugars)

  • Blood supply to the skin

  • Blood supply to the ‘modern’ parts of the brain (language/logic/planning)

  • Immune system (protection from disease)

Essentially the hormones increase our energy levels, strength, speed and stamina so that we can run away or fight off a threat. This balance is ‘paid for’ by a reduction in efficiency in systems which do not have an impact on our immediate chances of survival. An encounter with a hungry tiger is unlikely to be protracted and therefore the changes caused by stress hormones have little or no adverse effect on our health or wellbeing if the body quickly returns to homeostasis.

The difficulty comes when we are under prolonged stress and the stress response never fully dies away.

Long- term exposure to catecholamines has a variety of consequences including:

high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.

Because some catecholamines act as neurotransmitters in the brain, these substances can also alter cognition and other mental processes, leading to:

  • Poor concentration

  • Mood swings

  • Agitation

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Low Self-esteem

  • Lacking in Confidence

If you would like to undertake some hypnotherapy to help you to make the changes that you want to make, so that you can live the life that you want to live, please contact me.

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