Let’s talk about phobias. Generally, a phobia is regarded as an irrational fear related to anything from objects, animals, insects, situations or even spaces that are of no objective danger or threat. Yet where do they come from? What are they all about?

In psychoanalysis, the fear connected to a phobia does not come from the phobic object in and of itself directly, but instead comes from what it is that the object stirs up for the individual within the mind, specifically their unconscious mind. A phobic symptom develops because a mental representation produces too much anxiety that cannot be tolerated at a conscious level. The representation is thus repressed within the unconscious and its corresponding affect breaks away and becomes displaced on to ‘the phobic object’, which is located outside of the individual and safely out of sight of the original representation.

Avoiding one’s phobia repeatedly is all well and good, until it isn’t. Why? Because that repressed thought, wish, fear, desire that is being avoided can only do so for so long before something gives. In some cases, new phobias might emerge, phobic objects may take on a persecutory nature, or even cause the individual’s life to become extremely limited. Despite this being the case, phobias are in fact quite clever constructions of the mind. They are created as a way to alleviate mental tension; by allowing the built-up psychic energy to have an outlet in which to be released, the painful repressed thought is cathected. In other words, psychic energy presented to the suffering subject as inner anxiety becomes converted from something internal to something external. With the phobia now occupying the position of threat as the individual situates the source of anxiety on to it, subsequently this anxiety can now too be avoided.

For example, the woman who finds herself with a phobia of dogs may be concealing an unconscious fear of her own aggression. It is too painful to know about and so the woman’s deep rooted aggression becomes displaced on to a fear of dogs. This occurs via a very particular and unique unconscious process of significations, associations and attributions that has resulted in the woman’s translation of dogs as equalling aggression. Her mind has created a scenario that grazes the surface of unconsciousness ever so slightly; she can just about identify her anxiety, but then can escape it by avoiding it, and be free of her anxiety. Instead of her fear being of herself, she now has a fear of something else that can be avoided. Or can it? Since we know that with any unconscious material that tends to be avoided or put away, eventually it will find a way to surface itself and find expression, if not in one way then in another.

So how to treat a phobia? Psychoanalytic treatment can be helpful since the phobia itself is regarded as a symptom of a much wider complex structure of the mind, as opposed to an isolated problem that can be simply erased. During the analytic treatment, the subject’s entire unconscious structure is taken in to consideration and during this exploration, which takes place between client and therapist, the aim is to try and get to the root of the original representation of the phobic object. This is something that requires time; since every person is different and unique, so too is their specific relationship to their phobia. Once they begin to let go of some of the mental resistances they have in place, the phobic affect is given the opportunity to surface and find expression in a new way. When this takes place, the subject can begin to form links from a much less painful position, where the avoided feelings and thoughts can be tolerated and worked through. Essentially the person can live more freely as the anxiety becomes less persecutory.

What are you afraid to know?

Nadia Paruk