Phobias are disgusting!

The clichéd image of the macho-man who faints when he’s about to have an injection is, of course, based on the fact that this really can happen. Yet you have probably never heard of anyone fainting on encountering a large dog or when looking at deep water. It seems some phobias can make us faint, while others never seem to. And there’s a disgusting reason why this is so...

But first let’s explore the nature of disgust. Watch an arachnophobic client react to a spider and you’ll notice something interesting in her expression (for convenience I shall refer to the client as female).

There will be a clear sign of anxiety, as you would expect, but there’s a second, rather different emotion: The tongue comes forward, and the upper lip rises. The nose wrinkles, the lower eyelids tense, and the upper ones narrow. Most obvious, the head turns away: It’s an expression of disgust.

But when we have this feeling why do we produce such a strange set of facial changes?

A good way to understand them is by thinking of a baby who doesn’t want to eat a particular food: The nose is prepared for an unpleasant smell, the lips purse to stop us getting the food into its mouth, and the tongue comes forward ready to push out the unwanted stuff if it does go in. In addition, the baby’s head moves to keep the mouth away from what is proffered.

Such facial changes can easily be understood in these circumstances.

So disgust helps us to protect ourselves from harmful things. We automatically feel repulsed by some of the most dangerous things that we might otherwise consume – rotting food, excrement, dirty water. This reaction is particularly important with young children for whom their opposing tendency to put everything in their mouth could otherwise make them ill. Nature thus pre-conditions us brilliantly, making it virtually impossible that we could make such a serious error.

Clearly the disgust response helps us reject food that we don’t want or shouldn’t have; but what has this got to do with arachnophobia? After all, we don’t intend to eat spiders; and the word ‘phobia’ stems from the Greek word ‘phobos’ meaning ‘fear’ – not ‘disgust’. So where does the very different feeling of disgust come into this?

One reason why we may feel disgust in such circumstances is our wariness – or even intense aversion – in response to creatures very different from ourselves. We are designed to pick out ‘our family’, ‘our tribe’, ‘our species’ and prefer these to other, different ones. But not only do spiders, for example, look very different to us, they also behave in a way that makes them seem quite alien.

Thus although we are ‘programmed’ to know that some spiders are potentially deadly and so we may be wary of them because of fear, we also are ‘programmed’ to feel some degree of distaste towards any spider simply because it is unappealing to us.

Total recoil


And it’s not only spiders that can evoke disgust. The sliminess of snails, worms, etc can easily produce that same feeling, even though these creatures can do us no harm. Again, they are very different to us.

Other creatures such as snakes, lizards, and so on are less appealing than, say, a domestic animal, and it is interesting to note that these reptiles are cold-blooded – unlike us or our usual types of pets.

Parenthetically - and conversely - it is not difficult to understand why the eponymous hero in Bambi was attractive to audiences: she had human-like eyes, a small, baby-like nose, and a petite, gentle mouth.

Her physical characteristics made her sufficiently like a baby deer for us to recognise her as such and find her appealing as a warm-blooded, gentle, non-threatening creature, but these also were anthropomorphised to make her somewhat like a human baby.

These modifications, therefore, increased further her appeal to audiences. Clearly we like living things similar to ourselves.

So creatures that tend to have very different characteristics to us we may treat with disgust; but there are things other than creatures that give us this feeling.

What else creates disgust?

We feel disgust in response not only to potentially harmful foods or unattractiveness in living things – we will feel the same if we suffer from one of the so-called ‘BII’ (blood, injury, and injection) phobias.

This is understandable in terms of survival – the presence of blood and/or injury threatens incapacity or death; while injections also relate to suffering pain or injury. So not only are we discouraged from taking unnecessary risks by fear, we may also be reluctant to do this because of disgust. The combination of these two emotions strongly encourages us to behave more cautiously than we otherwise might.

This revulsion response gives us an additional benefit - it provides a physical reaction that may be life-saving because it makes our blood-pressure drop thereby reducing blood loss. The drop in BP is interesting, since all other phobias evoke exactly the opposite reaction; and it explains why we would never see someone fainting when they encounter, say, a large dog, but we might see someone with a fear of needles doing so.

Clearly the disgust response provides people with behaviour and a physiology that will protect them; but it presents the therapist with a challenge as to how to treat this emotion.

But before we examine how we can deal with this, we need to address another issue. In the past most therapists have treated these conditions without addressing the disgust issue at all, and yet in some case have had success. How can that be?

Why has past therapy sometimes worked for these disgust-based problems?


Often the successful therapist will have used Hypno-analysis, therefore when the client regressed to past traumas she may have discharged both the fear and the disgust feelings. She will have also re-evaluated and reframed the thoughts that caused these feelings.


In such cases the treatment will often have been successful even though neither therapist nor client were looking for the disgust emotion - and may have had little or no awareness of its existence.

However, on other occasions, because of the type of treatment used (Visualisation, Suggestion, whatever), the client may have not made the requisite progress.

So is Hypno-analysis the way to address the disgust element?

Although Hypno-analysis may on occasions uncover disgust-based trauma, there is no certainty that this will happen; and in some cases Hypno-analysis may not be appropriate anyway (e.g. because of the type of client we have). Therefore we need to look for a more reliable process.

So how can we deal with the disgust element of the client’s problem? You may choose to give a client Suggestion for this issue, but I feel that this is probably going to have a low success rate (after all, if it has the same emotional power and deep roots as the other element – fear – then Suggestion is unlikely to work).

I cannot find any Hypnotherapy techniques (other than Suggestion) to address the problem, so I would like to put forward an idea. It would be great to say that I have used this for years, but in fact it only occurred to me recently, and so would be grateful for your feedback. So if you find this technique really helps – or not – please drop me a line:

By the way, you may find that you can use this with other, very different problems where you wish to de-condition a specific feeling; though obviously you need to choose what you work on with great care.

To introduce this idea, I shall firstly discuss Classical Conditioning. You are probably aware of this process from the story of psychologist Dr. Watson, who cruelly took an eleven-month-old infant called Albert, showed the child a white rat that the boy got to like, and then conditioned him to fear it. Watson did this by bashing a piece of metal with a hammer to create a frightening noise and then presenting Albert with the white rat. This procedure only had to be repeated a few times before the poor child reacted as though frightened of the creature: the child had built a link between the upsetting noise and the rat.

Let’s take another example.

If animal hears a tone and then receives an electric shock, and this procedure is repeated a number of times, it will quickly learn that the tone coming before the shock acts as a warning. This enables the animal to predict when the shock will come, and so it may be able to act to protect itself. Such conditioning will inevitably lead to the animal feeling distressed when the tone sounds – even when it no longer receives the shock.

But we can use Conditioning in a very different way – if we turn it back-to-front.

‘Backwards Conditioning’

In the example I gave just now, the tone acts as a warning that a shock will follow. But what happens in experiments when the process is reversed - so that the animal is given a shock and the tone sounds afterwards? In this case, since the animal is getting over the shock and starting to feel better it links the sound with a return to comfort and safety.

This reversal of the usual process is called, ‘Backwards Conditioning’.

An example of this in everyday life can occur after we’ve had a trauma; if we are helped by someone, as our suffering decreases we link the improvements in our well-being with the helper. To us this person comes to represent feelings of comfort and greater happiness. Clearly this type of conditioning can contribute to the irrational emotions clients may feel towards us when they experience Transference.

So, getting back to the issue of disgust, when a client has one of the three types of disorder associated with that feeling (BII phobias; disgust-based OCD; and phobias related to insects, reptiles, arachnids, etc) we may be able to use Backwards Conditioning to dissolve the emotion.

We can do this as follows: We ask the client to think of any experience where she has had an intense feeling of disgust – it must be stronger even than the feeling he/she gets from the phobia. Such a thing may not exist, though – the phobia may be worse than anything she has ever had elsewhere. In such a case we need some other way of generating an intense feeling.

So I would suggest asking the client to think of truly the worst, most disgusting thing that could ever happen in relation to the phobic object/situation; perhaps we could give our own ideas of what might qualify.

As an example of what might arouse disgust if the client hasn’t got an appropriate memory, the arachnophobic client might imagine having a spider in her mouth; but whatever she chooses, it needs to be worse than the experience she usually has when the problem occurs.

The client having found something particularly unpleasant (real or imagined) we can now get to work.

We induce hypnosis, and ask her to imagine this particularly disgusting scenario. After a while the client’s system will start to adapt to this so that her disgust level starts to drop (you can ask the client to give a 0 to 10 assessment of how she feels, or use a GSR meter if you have one). I must emphasise the need for the client to be feeling a decline in the emotion evoked by this unpleasant imagery before you move on. Once this has happened – and only when it has happened - you might leave the client with the image for a minute or two more, but then go on to the second stage. This is where you tell her to think of a typical situation in which her phobia might occur, and to focus on this less disturbing disgust sensation.

You are creating a Backwards Conditioning whereby the client, having gone to the more disgusting image first, will, when she thinks of her phobia, find it more acceptable emotionally than what has just preceded it. With repetition the phobic/OCD situation will increasingly come to be seen as something positive, and this will de-condition the client’s mind.

To appreciate this effect we could look at the story of the young lady writing home to her parents.

She tells them she is pregnant with the child of someone who just come out of prison – and can she bring him home while they look for somewhere of their own? He isn’t violent any more. She has also been charged with theft and will need them to come and bail her out, but she will need extra money for her drugs habit. At the end of the letter she tells them that none of this true – but could they send her a bit of money to tide her over until she gets paid?

The young lady is hoping they’ll be so relieved to hear that her earlier stories are only stories that they will be delighted to send her some cash! This is a form of Backwards Conditioning.

Okay, so will our approach work? We have every reason to believe so because Backwards Conditioning has been heavily researched - there are literally thousands of studies to validate its effectiveness. But it can only work properly when you have repeated this process with the client a number of times. I would suggest that you go through it a few times each session – that way some progress may occur after just a few sessions.

I hope this technique helps you to deal with these disgust-driven problems. As I mentioned earlier, there is the possibility that Backwards Conditioning could be used in treating other problems, but I would have reservations about doing so without considerable thought, because it may cause the client undue distress - and another approach could be more gentle but just as effective with those problems. However, I’m hoping that this proves a very good way of dealing with the disgust element of these conditions.

Phobias don’t have to be disgusting – and macho-men don’t have to suffer the embarrassment of fainting when they have injections.

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Alan Davidson:

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