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Don't be afraid to tackle your phobias

Goodness knows what my neighbours thought when they heard me screaming. There I was, in that mid-point between sleep and waking one Saturday morning when the biggest spider I have ever seen in this country moved across my bedspread.

A fat-bodied, dark-legged creature at least two-inches in circumference, it seemed to have no fear of me.

I was out of bed and through the door faster than Usain Bolt.

My name is John and I have a phobia of spiders. Ever since a daddy-long-legs -- or pholcidae, to give it its less cute name -- threw a large shadow on my ceiling as a three-year-old, I have been grimly obsessed with any spider.

My fiancée, who lived in Sydney for 10 years, can no longer tolerate questions about the sort of spiders and insects she saw there. She's worried that I will forever give Australia a wide berth.

Perhaps for this reason, I ended up trying hypnotherapy. Just before Christmas, I found myself lying down in a room above Middle Abbey Street in Dublin while a man I had just met asked me to close my eyes and imagine a room full of spiders and other insects.

The man in question is John Francis Leader, a clinical psychologist, who has treated people suffering from a wide range of phobias. I'm reassured to hear that arachnophobia is very common in this country, up there with a fear of flying and a dread of social situations.

Under hypnosis, he asks me to imagine a short movie full of spiders. Then he asks me to replay the same 'movie' over and over again in my head. The affect is to desensitise me. Later, he asks me to think of a particularly happy situation and then to imagine a spider in that scene. At one point, he asks me to think of a giant spider with human qualities -- which sounds nuts in print, but made a weird sort of sense at the time.

I've only been for one session so far, but already it seems to have an impact. I can now look at a photo of a spider without flinching. That's a breakthrough of sorts.

"Phobias are extremely common," Leader says, "but they vary in terms of extremity from one person to the next. Some can be very debilitating, particularly if they have to encounter their fears a lot. I see people who suffer from all kinds of phobias -- fear of public speaking, enclosed spaces, dental-phobia, you name it."

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Hypnotherapy programs with Leader cost from €100 to €1,000. He says those with mild phobias can be treated in one to four sessions, while some with a major fear could require up to 12 visits.

One of Leader's clients, Dubliner Sinead Murphy, had a phobia of driving that was so debilitating she couldn't sit behind the wheel of her car. Now she drives with little difficulty.

"I was fine as a passenger but the prospect of driving on my own was so nerve-wracking that I just couldn't bring myself to do it," she says. "I was so nervous that I thought I should just stick to public transport. People used to tell me it was natural to feel that way because I was inexperienced, but I knew it was an extreme reaction. It was very upsetting not to be able to treat as normal something as common as driving."

Now, there is good news for people suffering from severe phobias with American scientists successfully managing to eliminate fear from the human mind for the first time with behavioural therapy.

Scientists funded by the US National Institute of Mental Health have selectively blocked thoughts of fear by interfering with the way memories are "reconsolidated" by the brain.

"Previous attempts to disrupt fear memories have relied on pharmacological interventions," says Elizabeth Phelps of New York University, who led the study. "Our results suggest such invasive techniques may not be necessary."

Conventional behaviour therapy involves exposing people to a phobia -- such as showing a spider to arachnophobes -- under "safe" conditions.

The new research goes a step further by retrieving an original memory that sparked the fear and to manipulate it when it is being restored, or reconstituted, to show that it is no longer dangerous. The research was initially conducted on rats using electric shocks.

For me, the notion of electric shock therapy, even in the course of a controlled experiment, seems like a step too far, but the apparent ready availability of volunteers goes to show the lengths that some will go to, to overcome their fears.

Despite writing these words, I feel less anxious about spiders than I did.

John Francis Leader advised me to associate spiders with happy thoughts, and I've been trying to do that.

At least the prospect of visiting Australia and potentially confronting large spiders is not as daunting as it once was.

John Francis Leader can be contacted on 0818 200 250 www.hypnotherapy.ie

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