When I read the interview with Prof. Merel Kindt´s on her work at the University of Amsterdam last year I immediately knew that this is the challenge I would have to face!
Being a mother of three grown up children I know very well that rules and guidelines are important in education, the most powerful tools are love and being a good role model though. Being a role model for them now that they are in their busy years, having new and challenging experiences far away from their childhood home, means staying open for new experiences and learning for myself as well.
Working passionately as an Executive Coach for more than 20 years on the other hand, I often had to admit that I rarely have to face the kind of challenges which I encourage my clients to approach. Yet being a role model in this case too by going through comparatively difficult situations, which might even create fear, seems important to me.
Therefore reading the article about the experiment at the University of Amsterdam I thought this might be a good possibility to prove that I also dare to confront myself with something frightening, then overcome my fear and thereby gain freedom.
Since childhood I reacted in a phobic manner when seeing spiders of a certain size. Even in documentaries or coming across things shaped like a spider – all this made me jump and flee in a ridiculous way.
I always felt limited by this phobia and found it quite off putting because the rational portion of my brain knew that there is no real danger.
I wanted to overcome this for a long time and tried several kinds of interventions such as hypnosis to eliminate it – with no effect at all. The only thing I never dared to go through was „exposure“. I knew I would have to do exactly that if I wanted to have success though, so when I read about Merel Kindt´s and Jamie Elsey´s work which sounded very promising to me I decided to finally overcome my panic.
After a Skype-interview with the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Amsterdam, and after delivering a fact sheet with all my medical history to the people in charge, I was chosen for the experimental run.
I got my appointment, I flew to Amsterdam and went to the DEP.
Merel Kindt and Jamie Elsey, both very kind and likeable characters, met me in the hall. They conducted a short interview, mesured my bloodpressure and gave me an introduction. Then they led me into their lab where two objects of my fear were kept in open plexiglas boxes: An adult tarantula and a „baby“-tarantula which had the size of a big house spider. Merel and Jamie had told me to actually go into my fear not try to control it. Therefore I went closer than my „safety distance“ normally allows me to and there it was: All the symptoms of panic arose.
Merel and Jamie made the tarantulas move which made me panic even more.
They let me feel this condition for a moment then took me away into the other room. There they gave me a low dosed pill of Propanolol which is a substance normally used in the medical field to lower the bloodpressure. They kept me in a quiet room for another two hours and controlled my condition from time to time. Then I was allowed to go to my hotel and asked to come back the next morning.
When I arrived the second time I was far away from believing that I now would be able to go any closer but some minutes later I understood that this was because I had not yet experienced my new self! I was still so used to being afraid that I could not even imagine a different reaction. Oddly I found myself suddenly interested, I was able to go much closer, to touch the bigger specimen with one finger on its rear part and to guide the smaller specimen with a pencil.
With Merel´s and Jamie´s help and with the forbearance of the two tarantulas I actually was able to break my inner shackles. Unbelievable! I was surprised, I was grateful and I was proud. For a moment I really felt like „new born“. Now I am practicing the new attitude in my real life making a big impression on those who have known me before.
The exact neurobiological mechanism is still not completely clear but obviously there are quite positive results, so let me try to explain the assumption:
As I was reacting to spiders with panic since childhood we can call this a „memory“ which is so fixed that it is immediately present including all the body reactions. „Fixed“ means certain synapse formations or links are used each time the object is seen – thus hindering the possibility to built up different links.
The brief reactivation of my panic was supposed to trigger a ‚reconsolidation‘, where this memory is for a while destabilised. When this happens it is possible to try to add new information or generate different emotions, in the hope that this gets incorporated into the reactivated memory.
Transfer to Coaching:
Success in coaching and therapy is when I can support my client in finding a totally new perception of his or her absolutely unchanged reality and then encourage him or her to try out completely new ways of dealing with it.
In order to get there I induce a short moment of emotional irritation and confusion related to the matter and then switch to a different perspective, respectively new emotions and new solutions.
I do so because when I was still working as a physician with patients who had severe diseases, I found out that even in such situations rational explanations or worse: „orders“ often lead to a decreased compliance instead of the change in attitude needed.
Therefore I am convinced that without being personally touched us humans will move nothing or only very little because the subject then remains in our „young brain“, the cerebralcortex, when actually the old brain parts are much stronger…
My personal experience in the Amsterdam lab gave me a neurophysiological explanation and immediate proof for this:
The convictions that were learned early or maybe even inherited determine our reactions to our outer reality (such as my phobic fear influenced mine on spiders).
It might be less visible but non-phobic people because of their old memory also often completely „avoid“ certain new, different possibilities which makes them miss a lot of chances along their path.
To break free from such a vicious circle we have to loosen the old synapse formations (by creating a strong emotion) and then put something between the two open ends ( by creating a new feeling) which then blocks the old way of thinking!
© Dr. Cristina Barth Frazzetta