Initially, I avoided watching Sky’s latest programme on Extreme Phobias because I thought it might be frivolous. I was wrong, the programme is positively dangerous.
This episode took ten water-phobics and took them through escallating levels of water exposure – all, it seems, for viewer gratification as the participants predictably fell apart emotionally. The premise of the programme seems to be that peer pressure and pushing them through highly stressful episodes will retrain their response to water. Well, the peer pressure does seem to make them compliant to do the tasks but they were mostly petrified throughout. And if they didn’t want to do a task, the pressure was just raised further.
At one point, a highly emotional participant, didn’t want to do one of the scary tasks and was confronted by one of the psychologist. They instructed them to breath and said ‘this will help you sit with that anxiety and tolerate it.’ Unbelievable! Highly emotionally people are highly suggestible. Why not say, “I know you’re feeling scared, but it will quickly pass, and once it’s passed, it’s past.” Not “you’re scared, stay scared and just put up with it!” I was gobsmacked. Therapists need to watch their language around scared people; they might believe what you say.
So my question is an ethical one. Why didn’t the two ‘professional’ psychologists help the participants to remove their irrational fears before beginning? Two obvious answers come to mind, firstly that it would spoil the TV but more likely, I think, the psychologists just didn’t know how. And it’s this that’s really shocking. There’s at least 10,000 therapists in the UK that know how to remove a phobia in a single session, so why didn’t these two professional psychologists know? I can only assume that they didn’t feel the need to read outside of their field.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for instance, uses types of exposure therapy, gradually reducing the distance to the stimulus. You start in a room with a spider, you at one end and the spider at the other. Gradually over weeks the distance is reduced at the rate that the anxiety can be controlled. The result of this is that after ten weeks you might have a client that’s slightly less scared of spiders together with a very bored spider. CBT is considered one of the better systems of therapy and is the only generally available psychological treatment available on the NHS – for now.
This programme couldn’t be further away from Sky’s 2005 series by Paul McKenna, called ‘I Can Change Your Life.’ Each week a person with a different serious and persistent mental health issue was treated, quickly, painlessly and effectively, and all without the need for nearly drowning anybody. Partly it was watching this programme that fired my interest in hypnosis and why I’m proud to be a Cognitive Hypnotherapist. I don’t think I could look myself in the mirror if I claimed to be a mental health therapists and really couldn’t help people quickly and effectively.
The general public is unfortunately left without any decent guidance in this area. Most doctors feel adrift in referring people for mental health services. There simply is no good way of separating the wheat from the chaff. The only piece of advice I can give is this: most mental health problems can be treated, quickly and painlessly. Ask for recommendations from friends and ask them specifically, were you treated effectively, and were you treated quickly (less than ten sessions). It’s not perfect but it’s better than most NHS referrals or answering a TV ad.