“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear” (Mandela, Nelson). Emotion is a powerful psychological experience that influences basic human behavior and decision making. While all emotions dictate one aspect of behavior or another, some are more powerful than the rest; some are more instinctual, primal, and can even determine the difference between life and death. Fear is one of these emotions. The feeling of fear is a necessary response that has played a role in human survival since the dawn of man. Due to the instinctual nature of fear in the human psyche, it is difficult to exorcise an “irrational” or “inappropriate” feeling of fear. An example being linophobia which is the fear of strings; while there is no specific reason to fear string some people do and this is the result of fear conditioning – associating strings with a feeling of fear, usually having followed a traumatic event involving string or where string was present. These “irrational” fears are known as phobias. While fear is a state of consciousness, hypnosis is the act of manipulating a state of consciousness and substituting an alternate state. Due to this relationship between emotion and hypnosis, it is possible to substitute the mental state of fear for another such as courage/willpower or hope. Through hypnosis it is possible to overcome fear by inducing a state of hopefulness. In a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. he states, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that” (King, Martin L.), similarly I believe that the only way to drive out fear is through hope and finding the willpower to pursue that hope; and hypnosis can help achieve that.
Fear, like most emotions, is a personal feeling. The feeling resides in past memories and becomes a form of personal adaptation in order to survive. Due to people having varying memories and different life experiences which create different fears, the hypnosis used to therapeutically treat the fear must be equally unique. The theory will remain the same, which is substituting one mental state (fear) for another (hope), but the process of initiating the state change will be different for each person and will be specific to their type of fear/phobia. In order to overcome the fear the memories cannot simply be forgotten or erased, they must be given a new meaning or association to the individual. A prevalent example of this in media is Batman. As a boy he was afraid of bats, a phobia called “chiroptophobia”, but he learned to give his memory of bats a new meaning, a positive meaning rather than one ridden with fear (Langley). He achieves this through a combination of exposure-therapy (in hypnosis called “imaginative exposure”) and self-hypnosis. From there he was able to use the symbol of the bat – which was once his greatest fear – as a source for good, while using his knowledge of fear-conditioning to instill that fear into the criminals of Gotham (Langley). Such as in Batman’s case, hypnotherapy can be used to give a memory new meaning and help break free of the fear-conditioned state.
A study and academic journal published by B. Wijesinghe goes into deep detail on the use of “flooding” to help a patient overcome her vomiting phobia. This phobia is called emetophobia and ranges from the fear of vomiting oneself to seeing someone else vomit and even just seeing vomit in general. The patient was initially told to imagine herself in a situation where she vomited in a public place, but that was unsuccessful in triggering a reaction and she was unable to hold the image long enough in her mind. (Wijesinghe,1). After trying this twice with no results Wijesinghe then put the patient into a hypnotic trance using eye-fixation with distraction and relaxation techniques. Once in the hypnotic state she was able to fully imagine the situation that was attempted earlier but this time the image was powerful enough to incite a strong emotional arousal, but with a lowered anxiety level. This was repeated over a three month period and by the end the patient no longer suffered from phobic anxiety of any kind (Wijesinghe, 2). In relation to this article, I have personally had first-hand experience with this particular phobia. My sister suffers with emetophobia and I have an incredibly weak stomach so I have seen the type of fear this phobia can cause many times. For many years we just ignored her emotional reactions whenever someone was feeling ill or looked a little pale in the face, but recently with my passion for studying emotion and research into mental conditions and phobias I have found that she should possibly seek out professional help. Hypnotherapy conducted in a similar way to Wijesinghe’s study might be exactly what she needs to overcome her fear of vomiting.
When it comes to any challenge in life there is never a guaranteed “get out of jail free” card. When it comes to the psychological toll that fear and phobias have on the psyche, hypnosis is no exception. It will take a great deal of determination and willpower to overcome that fear but hypnosis has the ability to guide the individual on the path to a better state of mind. Common Knowledge’s creative director Mark Tyrrell discusses this in his essay How to reduce fear and anxiety with hypnosis. The main goal of his essay is to show how fear can be changed into confidence by confronting that fear through hypnosis. Imagination is a powerful ally of fear and the main source fear uses to get into the psyche. “Fear is like water – it needs a channel to go down. If nothing actually life threatening is happening right at the point you feel fear, then your imagination constructs a channel for that fear by creating a reason for you to feel fearful” (Tyrrell, 1). Imagination makes you focus on what can be rather than what is and it tricks your mind into believing whatever life threating thing you’re imagining is real. Consciously remaining calm in these circumstances and using self-hypnosis to relax helps overcome the fear and build up confidence in similar future situations (Tyrrell, 1). With a calm mind and hypnotherapeutic practices such as this, it is possible to overcome one’s fears and phobias through hypnosis alone.
Despite the instinctual nature of fear and the crippling effect it has on the human psyche, hypnosis has proven to be a viable way to overcome “irrational” and mentally debilitating phobias. From strings, to bats, to vomit, hypnosis with the addition of a little bit of willpower and determination can be used to provide a more hopeful and positive association with any of these fears. From the perspective of a psychologist, hypnosis is a great tool to use when dealing with patients who are overly focused on a memory causing the phobia because it can help them focus on something else or use the flooding technique and make them focus on it so much it is no longer frightening. I think the best use of hypnosis in overcoming fear is through imaginative exposure due to the likeness it has to behavioral exposure, but with it all taking place in the mind – that is a fascinating technique to me and it probably helps the patient to feel more at ease during the process as well which will reduce phobic anxiety. In conclusion, fear and phobias may at times be a detriment to the human psyche, but with hypnosis and enough willpower to face the fear head-on it is possible to overcome these challenges.