What is fear?

Fear is an emotion we all experience. The purpose of fear is to protect us. Fear ensures our survival, it is instinctual. A response is triggered to enable us to avoid danger (once avoided we can safely make a proper assessment).

The fear response comes from our primitive mind. This response does not allow time for a rational, measured response or assessment. Our amygdala hijacks our brain with our fight or flight response:

  • When we describe this to children, we ask them to imagine that they step outside, and in their back garden is a huge, ferocious, polar bear. What would happen? Our anxiety would go up, our heart rate would increase, our palms might get sweaty, and our stomach would churn.
  • Before we have a chance to wonder why a polar bear is in our garden, whether it is hurt or hungry, our fear response takes over and we run as fast as we can back to safety.
  • When we are safe, our brain gets the all-clear message and then we can access our intellectual mind (where we can make a proper assessment – and probably call 999 to get rid of the polar bear!).

Fear can be healthy – it keeps us safe. It helps us avoid dangerous situations and if you think about it, it is actually sensible for someone who can’t swim to avoid deep water.

Sometimes fear develops because a situation is unknown or outside of our control. We often overcome fear by learning a new skill or watching other people manage a particular situation. We learn to swim, watch our friends ride the rollercoaster or watch older siblings navigate the ramps at the skate park until we are comfortable to try it for ourselves.

Children develop fears and generally overcome them as part of their development within a supportive, encouraging and nurturing environment. Some children may have a more fearful disposition (which may be impacted by the natural disposition of parents or caregivers or may be as a result of some changes or challenges in their lives, such as:

  • Illness
  • Loss
  • moving home
  • parents separating

Common childhood fears include:

  • The dark
  • Monsters in the cupboard or under the bed
  • Strangers
  • Being alone

and many of these fears are overcome through experience.

We learn there are no such thing as monsters or that nothing actually changes in the dark. Some fears might have their place – a fear of a lake of crocodiles or a patch of sinking sand should always be avoided.

New experiences bring with them unknown outcomes and the unknown is scary. As adults we have already overcome many fears and so we have (generally) a better reference guide. This reference guide is stored in our brains and our amygdala checks for danger and can quickly reconcile that all is well without having to trigger the fear response. For children, the reference guide is still being built and they may need more reassurance and support to recognise the fear and to work to overcome the fear.

What is a phobia?

Fear creates an anxiety response and sometimes becomes a phobia.

A phobia is when our amygdala has become heightened to a particular stimulus and it triggers the fear response to step in to protect us in a way that is disproportionate to the situation and where there is often no danger at all.

The brain has become convinced that the danger is greater than it is – we begin reacting to the harmless house spider as if it were the ferocious polar bear. Our intellectual brain is hijacked by the amygdala and we go into survival mode (fight or flight).

Our reference guide has become corrupted and we begin to the see the danger, not just as a spider itself, but in anything previously linked to the spider – cobwebs, garden sheds or cardboard boxes could trigger the same response even in the absence of the actual spider.

Phobias are split into two different categories – specific and complex.

Specific phobias centre on a particular object, animal or activity, such as arachnophobia (the fear of spiders). If you do not come into contact with the source of your phobia very often, it may not affect your everyday life. However, with a complex phobia (such as agoraphobia, the fear of situations where escape may be difficult) leading a normal life may be very difficult.

The NHS lists the following as some of the common specific phobias:

  • Animal phobias – such as dogs, spiders, snakes or rodents
  • Environmental phobias – such as heights, deep water and germs
  • Situational phobias – such as visiting the dentist or flying
  • Bodily phobias – such as blood, vomit or having injections

And agoraphobia and social phobia are the most common complex phobias (and are more likely developed in adulthood).

Our Amazing Brains

Knowing a little about how our brain works can be really helpful in understanding how we can treat specific phobias.

Our brains don’t recognise the difference between imagined and reality. When our anxiety leads us to imagine gradually worsening outcomes, our brain stores these as actual events and causes our phobias to become stronger. The original ‘scary’ event, which may only have happened once, is also strengthened and multiplied each time we recall or retell the story. You can see here how a phobia can develop.

The good news is that the opposite is also true, and this is where hypnotherapy is such a helpful tool in overcoming phobias.

When we are in a relaxed state, the amygdala is quietened and we can both revisit the original event and a create a preferred future event to create a new reference in our brain. Because the brain doesn’t know the difference between reality and imagination, if we vividly imagine a new version and how we would like future similar events to play out, we can change the corrupt storage in our brain with our preferred reality.

Some phobias may be created because our brain has linked a difficult or traumatic event to a situation or subject. Our brain looks for a reason for our behaviour.

For example:

  • A spider phobia may develop as a result of a child having a full stress bucket due to moving to a new house or school.
  • If the child was experiencing the emotions (fear/anxiety) and then walked through a spider’s web the brain can link the feelings of being out of control, stressed and anxious to the spider.
  • They have a panic response to this initial encounter not because they were initially scared of the spider but because their stress bucket was full due to other challenges.
  • Next time they encounter a spider the brain has attached the feelings to the spider and they have a panic response (e.g. scream, cry, sweat, etc).
  • The brain notices the pattern of behaviour and records it.
  • Spider = panic response = survive. This pattern is then replayed (remembered and retold) over and over and a phobia is created.

Phobias are not from our intellectual mind, they do not come from a place of reason or proper assessment. When we are in our primitive mind, we are unable to be solution focussed, creative or listen to reasoning – these parts of our brain shut down when we are in survival mode.

If you recognise that your child has developed a phobia, remember that it is unlikely that you can reason with them. The phobia is not rational.

If you witness your child having a panic response to a phobia, here are some ways that you can help in the moment.

  • Remove them from the stressful situation or remove the stress from them
  • Once the ‘threat’ is removed, practice their preferred breathing technique (examples are given below)
  • If the panic is still evident, support them with the following grounding technique – notice 5 things they can see, 4 things they can touch, 3 things they can hear, 2 things they can smell, 1 thing they can taste.  This forces the intellectual, ration mind to engage and take back some control from the anxious mind.
  • To support them in accessing their intellectual mind, encourage them to recall a positive event – this helps to move them out of their primitive mind where they will be able to make a better assessment of the situation.

When a fear response is triggered stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released. Remember the polar bear – your blood pressure and heart rate increase, you breathe faster. To ensure you are ready to run, or fight for your life, blood flows away from your heart and into your limbs. When we use relaxation breathing and grounding techniques, the vagus nerve signals to our nervous system to lower our heart rate, our blood pressure and cortisol levels, which in turn helps us to move back to our intellectual mind.

Children can be taught to relax when faced with stressful situations. They can practice diaphragmatic breathing every day, for example, when they wake up in the morning, and the more they do so, the more they will become confident in using it.

Here are 4 breathing techniques you can teach your child. At first its best to have them lying down to learn the proper way to breath. Then you can expand this exercise by having them sitting upright in a chair or couch. Have the child lying on their back and ask them to put their hand on their belly so they can feel their belly rise (on the inbreath) and fall (on the outbreath).

  • Take a slow deep breath in through their nose and let it out through their mouth with a gentle ah-h-h-h-h-h-h sound.
  • Breathe in slowly through their nose and out through their mouth like they are trying to move a feather up in the air.
  • Breathe in slowly to the count 2, 3, 4 and out 2, 3, 4. In 2, 3, 4 and out 2, 3, 4.
  • Breathe in slowly then hold their breath for 1,2,3. Breath out and say the word ‘relax’ to themselves in a calm internal voice.

Do each one several times (do it with them to demonstrate if necessary) and then ask them how each exercise makes them feel. You could ask them if there is one they prefer and discuss when they could use this technique.

If your child has a fear or phobia that is causing them a problem in their day-to-day life you can contact your local Youth Fairy for a free initial consultation to find out how we can help.

Or for more information concerning phobias, diagnosis and treatment is available on the NHS website https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/phobias/