According to the NHS, one in seven Britons lives with a phobia. But how many take the plunge and face their fear directly? Looking at the growth of bespoke phobia ‘experiences’ – in which sufferers get the chance to challenge their fear in a controlled environment – the number might be higher than you think.
Our own Kate Andrews – now self-outed as a lifelong arachnophobe – has shared her experience of handling a tarantula as part of London Zoo’s Friendly Spider Programme. And she isn’t alone. A cursory glance at Google suggests that, just as the index of clinically-recognised phobias continues to expand year-on-year, so too does the list of courses to deal with them.
Some of the most successful courses have been operating for years. Last time you rushed through Heathrow Airport, for example, did you stop to think that the stressed-looking terminal dweller in front of you in the queue might be an aerophobic about to enrol in BA's Flying with Confidence Programme – a one-day course culminating in a 45 minute practice (well, real) flight in the company of a trained psychologist?
But it isn’t just the most common phobias that can be addressed through a course. London-based hypnotherapist Adam Cox styles himself as the Phobia Guru, operating both bespoke and off-the-peg programmes designed to deal with all manner of complaints. His website lists more than 50 different phobias, grouped under four main categories: medical phobias, animal phobias, situational phobias and abstract phobias (the fear of happiness, for example).
As a rule of thumb, if you’ve heard of a phobia, there’s probably a course for it. A three-day workshop on overcoming the fear of clowns anyone? Participants will learn how to use neuro-linguistic programming techniques (similar to those popularised by Derren Brown) to learn to control their emotional state next time they're confronted with their fear. Whether the course culminates in a face-to-face encounter with a face-painted foe isn’t specified.
For those already offering adrenaline experiences, the phobia market can be a convenient revenue raiser. Outdoor adventure park Go Ape currently touts a course for brave acrophobics to confront their fear of heights by attempting its 30-feet tall jungle rope swings. Go Ape claims its courses have helped thousands of people – both adults and children – get over their fear of heights.
A lucrative industry has grown up around helping us conquer our fears. Reading the extensive prospectus of one Harley Street practitioner – who offers custom sessions to combat any phobia – I was reminded of a delightful New Yorker essay about a cottage industry of Japanese actors hiring themselves out to middle class folks looking to role-play potentially stressful social situations.
Do the courses do the trick? One certified NLP practitioner and performance coach, Natalie Dee, cautions against investing too much in the idea that facing your fear will bring you freedom. Swinging from the tree tops or fondling a six inch tarantula might give you an adrenaline buzz, she says, but it's unlikely to tackle the underlying issues.
‘A phobia is a bit like a scratch in an old record,’ she explains over the phone from her office in Spain. ‘For most people, it’s a case that – at some point in our childhood – we had an experience which caused us to attach a strong emotion to a particular object or concept.’ Even once we get out into the supposedly rational adult world, our brains still get stuck on that record scratch: meaning that we continue to experience that fear and anxiety.
Rather than jumping head first into that fear, Dee says, it’s far more useful to undertake exercises that help understand and take control of the emotional glitches that cause fear in the first place. For anyone wanting to address their phobia, she recommends the use of NLP techniques which essentially help desensitise us to our fears – without having to go through the rigmarole of coming face-to-face with them.
Whatever their genuine merits, though, the market for phobia courses continues to boom. Whether it’s dating coaches teaching anxious simpletons how to conquer their social phobia or Toastmasters clubs for those looking to beat their fear of public speaking, phobias are big business. Good news, at least, for any circus clowns looking to pick up some valuable out-of-season work.