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 http://www.havening.org/directory/grid/practitioners-list-grid