When does a fear become a phobia?

What is the difference between a fear and a phobia?

The easy answer is that one’s good and the other bad, but they are more like the sea and the beach – where one ends and the other begins, can vary on the time of day and the phases of the moon.

Fear is good, it serves a purpose; fear protects us from danger. Some fears we are born with, and some we learn later.

Some articles claim that fear is created in the amygdala part of the brain, in the subconscious. But it is more realistic to say that the emergency warning signals sent by the amygdala are interpreted by the conscious mind, and the conscious mind calls those alarm messages ‘fear’. Fear is only a label.

If you imagine that the conscious mind is like the main panel of one of those alarm systems that you have in buildings.

Then picture lots of sensors (like those little infra-red movement monitors) and each one of the sensors is looking for a different threat. When one of them finds a match, it sends a message to the main panel.

So, you have a sensor looking for ‘abandonment’, and you have a sensor looking for ‘the dark’, and a sensor looking for ‘closed spaces’ – and all the in-built threats that we are already looking for from the moment we’re born. The reason for these fears already being in place, is that without them we would quickly die.

A baby cries so that its mother doesn’t abandon it, so that it doesn’t die of starvation. The other in-born (epigenetic) fears are:

  • heights (falling could be fatal);
  • wide open spaces (unable to escape a predator);
  • creepy-crawlies (ground-based predators such as scorpions),
  • flying things (air-based predators)

Imagine those seven sensors coming as part of the initial kit for the human-survival alarm setup. When the alarm is first installed, the sensor for ‘abandonment’ is on its most sensitive setting and the one for ‘heights’ is pretty much turned off.

As a child ages, the sensitivity level for each of the alarms alters depending on the individual’s personality and experiences. A child learns when he goes to school/nursery, or perhaps earlier, that he does not need to fear abandonment, by the repeated ‘false positive’ of fearing abandonment and then finding all is well & Mum picks him up at the end of every day. Eventually the sensitivity level of that ‘abandonment’ sensor is turned down. Of course, it can be turned back up again if he does experience parental abandonment.

Meanwhile, new sensors can be added to the alarm system – some children develop a fear of loud noises such as bangs, fireworks and thunder. Many adults develop a fear of flying that’s almost never seen in children.

At different stages of life, the sensors become more or less heightened and this is caused by experience and changing perceptions. For example, most children will have a fear of the dark at some time between the age of two and six but almost all of them will ‘grow out’ of it – that sensor is ‘mothballed’ and only becomes active when another sensor is already ‘going off’. A person who has a fear of creepy crawlies, will feel fear more acutely if they are in a dark place where there are likely to be bugs.

Similarly, experience can reinforce, or heighten the sensitivity of the sensors. This probably accounts for why phobias (although they aren’t genetic) tend to run in families. If one of your parents has a phobia, you are likely to pick up on their fear and so the alarm sensor stays at a high sensitivity.

Back to the initial question of what is a phobia, it is one of three things:

Sensor Fault (Vanilla Phobia)

The threat sensor is set at a level that’s too sensitive for day-to-day comfort. This is usually when an experience has played out and a fear has been realised as an actual danger. For example, somebody who has been frightened by a spider and becomes phobic about all spiders. These experiences can cause phobia even when a sensitive person hears about, or sees, an event – not only when it happens to them.

Wiring Fault (Detective Phobia)

When an individual has experienced a trauma outside of any danger they were looking out for, a new sensor can be created specially to protect from that scenario and watch out in future. Unfortunately, that sensor can start searching for the wrong clues & set off the alarm at the wrong time.

To explain: if you imagine that a person is mugged (a horrible traumatic experience) and the mugger is wearing a green jumper. The sensor, in looking to protect the individual, creates a jolt of fear, every time a person in a green jumper walks past. The conscious mind is receiving a warning message but it cannot identify the danger it needs to react to.

Main Board Fault (Complex Phobia)

This is when the conscious mind receives multiple alerts at the same time & cannot separate the different sensor messages. Examples of this type of complex phobia are PTSD and panic attacks.

The reason why these three types of phobias are split out, is because of the effectiveness of available treatments.

In the first case, where the cause of a phobia is clear, exposure therapy can be an effective solution. In other words, repeated exposure to the feared scenario and proof that everything is okay (creating a false-positive), turns down the sensitivity of the sensor.

Exposure therapy will not be effective for the second type of phobia unless it is possible to identify the actual sensory input that caused the alert i.e. find out that it is a green jumper and not the smell of the mugger’s after-shave that is causing the alert.

For all three phobia types, Psychosensory Therapies (such as Havening Techniques, EFT, EMDR and TFT) are used to ‘reset’ the sensor in question, providing permanent relief. In the case of Complex Phobias, it will usually take a few sessions to reset all the different sensors, but for the other two types a single session is generally all that’s required.

If you have a sensor in need of resetting, I am based in the Orkney Islands and can cover Shetland / Scottish Highlands face-to-face. I offer consulting anywhere else in the world via Skype, or to find a local practitioner in your area, go to

Recommendations – or why I don’t love Amazon any more…

I was an early adopter of internet shopping because I lived abroad and there were a lot of things I missed about the UK. The first one was being able to get books in English and DVDs (or videos, back in the mid-90s) when they were released. In those days, Amazon was amazing because it remembered your last few book purchases and emailed you with other recommendations from people who’d bought the same books. It may seem commonplace today, but that was cutting-edge stuff nearly twenty years ago! My first experience of that left me thinking ‘Yey, this is what the internet is all about and how online shopping should be!’ All the fun of shopping but without getting sore feet or paying for parking.

Unfortunately, Amazon has now grown into a recommendation-requesting machine. Last week, I ordered an add-on item. If you don’t know what that is, it’s a low-cost item that isn’t worth the postage cost of sending on its own, so it stays in your basket until you have an order worth delivering – which is fine if you need a pack of envelopes but it isn’t urgent. In my case, since we moved house, I couldn’t find the box of drawing pins for the kitchen notice board, so a new packet was added on to the delivery of books I had this week.

Before the drawing pins had even arrived, I got an email from a company I’d never heard of, asking for a recommendation for my recent purchase, without even saying what it was that I’d apparently bought. I thought it was spam and deleted it. Then another one. Then another one. Finally, I noticed that the original Amazon order had said ‘delivered and fulfilled by X’ – the company that had been emailing me.

I am all in favour of giving recommendations, relying on them often and giving them too. I feel uncomfortable asking clients for recommendations (even though they usually give them gladly) so it really gets me annoyed when I’m inundated with requests for something like this. Recommendations should be written for the benefit of future (potential) customers so there are clear etiquette rules to follow:

  • If it’s something technical, people are researching about it to either find out a) does it do what they want it to; or b) how difficult is it to set up/use; or c) how does it compare to its competitors? So, recommendations should be based around that.
  • If it’s a personal service like a beautician or a therapist then it’s all about how well you connected and how qualified/expert you found that person to be – did they perform as expected?
  • If it’s anything non-technical then people are pretty much interested in quality and/or price. Does it do what it’s supposed to and was the cost reasonable?

So, nobody would ever be interested in my opinion on drawing pins, unless, maybe, they didn’t do the job they were intended for. I was left wondering why anybody would write a recommendation for drawing pins. What good could it possibly do?

Which of These Four Areas are You Neglecting?

As a Happiness Coach, I teach confidence; both as a group course and as part of a one-to-one journey. The course is never what my participants expect it to be because we don’t dive in and identify areas or times when they’ve wanted more confidence and then build from there. It needs to start earlier.

Diving in would be rather like trying to help somebody improve spelling without checking that they know the alphabet.

So, the first step is to make sure that clients have the same starting point as all the truly confident people they admire – a solid base. Unless your growth is built on a rock-solid foundation, people will always be able to take away your power and undermine your confidence.

A solid foundation needs balance, and there are four pillars of support, they are: brain, heart, body and soul. Unless you are spending a roughly equal amount of time and effort in maintaining each of those four, you won’t have a solid foundation.

What do I mean by this?

  • Brain, or intellectual pursuits. These can include work, study or hobbies where you have to expend mental effort.
  • Heart, or emotional time. This can include family, friends, or even work if you have a job that involves connecting with people.
  • Body, or physical time. This includes exercise and sleep.
  • Soul, or spiritual time. It can mean religion but it doesn’t have to. Time enjoying nature, or fulfilling hobbies such as arts/crafts are also great.

I don’t claim to have invented or discovered this myself. I can’t remember where I got it from but I’ve been using it for many years. In fact, my own ‘Breaking the Cycle of Depression’ course has five sectors of life for attention and is much more complicated (I’ll explain that another day). This simple quadrant-exercise is usually enough for people to identify which area is out of balance and merits attention. So, are you getting too little sleep? Spending too many hours working in a stressful atmosphere? Lacking a connection with other people, or letting them dictate your life?

If you’ve found one of these areas needing attention, what can you do about it? And when will you start today? Get somebody on your side to support you and remind you, that you need to work on your difficult quadrant. And remember that you are building a strong foundation for growing your own confidence.

How did we get it so Wrong for the Next Generation?

I was approached by a journalist this week, asking me to weigh in on an issue from my perspective as a Happiness Coach. She said “We are more miserable as a culture than ever. What’s going on? Why? What’s fuelling the growth of things like happiness consulting? Where are people going right or wrong?”

That’s a big question, and really one that can’t be answered quickly or simply, but I will be as concise as I can manage.

For years, scientists believed that our personality was fixed, immutable, until research started to show that some aspects can be changed by nurture, or events, or the implications of social structure such as poverty. Now, we are realising that most of our life, and our perception of it as happy, or healthy, or worthwhile, is almost completely down to our attitude to what happens to us. More precisely, our level of happiness is dictated by how well our expectation of what our life should be, is met.

I am fortunate enough to have known two of my great grandmothers, one on either side of the family. My paternal great-grandmother was a sad, bitter old lady who said that her life had been horrible because she experienced the death of both her sons. “No parent should outlive all their children” she told me.

The other great-grandmother had been in an accident as a small child and, because she was not expected to survive, her hands were bandaged into fists and she lost the use of all fingers. She managed to get a job as a domestic servant, but fell pregnant out of wedlock and then brought up my grandad as a single mother, with all the stigma of 100 years ago. Despite all this, she was a kind, smiling, gentle woman, always grateful to be alive. She had joy every day in the company of Charlie, her little yellow budgie. There must have been a dozen consecutive Charlies over the years.

The next generation, my grandparents lived during and after the Second World War. Grandad was in the Air Force, then for many years worked as a milkman. Nanna told me that she would save a penny each week from the housekeeping money so that she and Grandad could go to the pub and share half a pint of beer, each time he came home on leave.

My father and all my uncles on both sides had good, middle class jobs; in a Post Office, a bank, an advertising agency. All my brothers, cousins and I went to university – we are accountants, consultants, lecturers. Our parents made sure that we had more than they did; more chances, more money, more choices, and their parents did the same before.

Our parents thought we had it all but we didn’t. We just had more than them. And we have told our children that we didn’t have it all, but that THEY do. And we have created a generation who feel entitled to it all and they are disappointed when they can’t have it all.

I have heard it said that anyone can be Prime Minister in UK, and I suppose it’s the same in America – anyone can be President. Saying it that way around is wrong. We should say ‘The President can be anybody’. That way, it doesn’t create the impression that 320 million people failed because they didn’t meet their highest potential of becoming the President of the United States. Or sixty-six million Brits who, almost without exception, failed to become Prime Minister.

We need to be more careful with the words we use, and the way we say things. Life could be looked at in a much more positive way if we expected less, but embraced our achievements and the good hand we’ve been dealt, instead of dwelling on our failure and the negatives.

When Good Intentions go Wrong

I was only just big enough to carry the tea tray and I decided to make breakfast-in-bed for Mum. Maybe it was her birthday or Mother’s Day, I’m sure it was some special occasion.

Being old enough to work the toaster (that was my usual breakfast time chore) I could get the toast just right – crispy but not burned. Mum was always stingy with the jam and so I loaded up the toast with the amount of jam I thought was ideal, and added a bit more because it was a special occasion. There was probably more jam than toast by the time it was ready.

I wanted to make coffee but wasn’t allowed to touch the kettle so I had to make it with tap water and that would be fine because Mum often said her coffee had gone cold whilst she was cleaning up after everyone. She always drank it anyway.

The tray was too difficult to handle going up the stairs and everything kept slipping about so I had to wake Dad and ask him to help. I can picture Mum’s face as she nibbled the corner of the sticky toast and sipped at the drink around the coffee grounds floating on the surface. She told me it was the coffee for the percolator but that it didn’t matter. I thought I had done something wrong, that the percolator was some esteemed visitor, like the rent man, who had special coffee just for him. I made a complete mess of it all, but everything was done with the best of intentions and Mum knew that.

This also shows how the mind works. The conscious mind can handle new scenarios by building on what it knows from similar events in its experience. Depending on personality type, some people will change the way things are done when they get a chance to improve an existing procedure. If we meet an obstacle, most people will exercise problem-solving skills by working around it and then justifying what they’ve done. And most of us know when we can’t manage alone so need to ask for help.

And finally, even though it often gets things wrong by being over-protective, or reaching the wrong conclusions, the mind always works with the best of intentions: it’s protecting us.

So, when you feel pain, it is your unconscious mind telling you to rest. And when you have a nightmare, it is an unresolved problem being sent back for analysis or resolution instead of filing away. And when you have a phobia or panic attack, it is your mind trying to prevent you from going to a place it sees as potentially life-threatening.

If its over-protective then the worst thing is to ignore it – just like ignoring your mother when she is giving you a warning about something, she just nags more often and louder, doesn’t she? So the solution is to acknowledge the warning and then decide for yourself if you need to change anything. And if the nagging continues, let me know. I can show you how to turn down the volume without ignoring the valid warnings. The mind is just doing its job, with the best of intentions.