A Conversation for Fears and Phobias and How to Deal with Them


Post 1

Mort - a middle aged Girl Interrupted

I have a fear of balloons. Not only when they are inflated but also when they are just flopping about flat. It would be easy to explain away the inflated balloon fear - frightened as a child by one popping near me - except that never happened (a fact verified by my parents).
Deflated balloons cannot shock or frighten but they still give me the willies. Just the touch and feel of them, perhaps explainable by a 'rubbery type material' aversion, except that isnt true either. As a nurse my job frquently requires me to wear latex gloves and they dont scare me.
But by far the worst kind of balloon is that 4 day old - post party - ballooon where it has started to shrivel and go wrinkly at one end. And even writing about them is enough to make me grit my teeth and wish i wasnt. I hate those.
I have only met one person before who also had 'the balloon thing' but i dont know if it has a proper name or not.
You would think that balloons are easy enough to avoid - dont buy them - but think about a busy city high street and a shop having a promotion day. 100's of wayward children waving balloons about. Trying to avoid them could be classed as an Olympic skill. Just when you think you have worked out the trajectory of the ballooon then the child changes direction or a sudden gust of wind blows the smiley - bleep in your face and you are left looking like an idiot, while you dance about as if on hot coals ducking and diving to avoid another whack in the face. (This is usually when parents hold on tighter to their kids thinking that its a 'special bus' day out or something )
Christmas is another dreaded time as, of course, they are not only in the streets but in houses, offices and nightclubs. The only answer is to stay at home and be a party pooper.
Foil balloons, the kind often filled with helium, are ok. They dont bother me, so i have given up on the logic of the fear and just accept it.
A cure? I doubt it. Relaxation techniques can get me in a room with balloons but that is about it.
I prefer to pretend they dont exist - it works very well!
For those of you that have read this, I can guarentee that most of you will be thinking of the same question.
Well the answer is YES. If you blow a condom up so it looks like a balloon then they will freak me out too!


Post 2


I also have a very similar phobia.
Not so bad now I am older, or perhaps I am just better at avoiding them.

I can usually handle them for a moment or two but eventually start to wretch (never actually been sick though)
Burst remains are definatly horrible and the worst are old wrinklies.

Helium filled are much less trouble, even rubbery ones until they wrinkle or die.

The worst thing is Party=Food(Cake etc), now thats just plain torture.


Post 3


I am terrified of balloons and they are everywhere i go its like i can't escape. I cant avoid them at all, i can only just go into town but even then i can only go in a few shops.
If one popped anywhere near me i stop breathing for a minute and then hyperventalate but it takes me about 30 mins for me to totally calm down again. Now as you can guess this doesn't look that attractive. I get teased and laughed at all the time about it thats the mean peoples reaction. Once some idiot thought i was lying so tried popping one near me lets say he now believes me.
I would do anything to get over it so if anyone has any advice please tell me its ripping my life to shreds.


Post 4


There are surprisingly many many people with this fear of balloons - Globophobia.

Here is some good information taken from the only forum and website dedicated to Phobias called http://www.ofear.com

Where did this phobia come from ?
There are a variety of processes that appear to cause a phobia of balloons popping. It is common to find that someone with a balloon popping phobia has had a bad experience with a balloon when they were very young - often a balloon will have popped very close by and will have quite understandably produced an enormous shock - when this happens at what is correctly called 'a tender age' then a strong aversion can be initiated towards whatever caused the shock in the first place.

Although I am not phobic - I can imagine the process where a child is upset at the loss of such a beautiful and amazing thing as a balloon - and because the sound of the balloon popping is associated with the loss, an avoidance of both the loss and the noise could be linked into one feeling and could build up to the point where it is seen as unbearable.

There is growing evidence that a tendency towards having a phobia can have a genetic basis, although the data is open to misinterpretation. It is fairly common for someone with a phobia to have a parent or both parents who also have a phobia. There are two possible processes in play here - one process has been proved to exist and that is a genetic predisposition to phobias - the phobias of the parents will not usually be the same ones as those in the children. The other process which is the one that can confuse the data, is that it may be possible for the children to learn how to be excessively fearful simply by following their parents' example. Observing phobic offspring within a phobic family can provide no real clues as to the origins of the phobias of the offspring - genetic studies with animals show that genetics control a tendency to be either timid or bold, and that the same genes are also responsible for such things as physical size and body pigmentation - while it is logical for a small animal to be more timid than a larger one, it is illogical that hair color or body color should have this effect - but such effects are observed even where offspring are removed from the parents at birth so that the genetic influence is separated from the environmental one.

Since a phobia is an irrational fear, we cannot always expect there to be any rational explanation for its existence - if there is something in the past which has been the starting point of the phobia, then there may be some usefulness in starting to rationalize this event - but faced with a phobia, the only important thing to do is deal with it - and the precise history of its cause is not as significant as the way we go about the cure.

Will I grow out of the balloon popping phobia ?

The short answer is NO... some effort is usually involved.

There are a few circumstances where a phobia may moderate with time, but normally these circumstances are those which replicate one of the forms of therapy which would have been used anyway. For example, someone who has is phobic about balloons popping but also has a generalized form of the phobia where any loud and sudden noises have a significant effect, may find themselves asked to go and work in a noisy environment, and they may start to get used to sudden loud noise to the extent that phobias with aggravating sound as their basis may begin to abate.

It is always better to tackle a phobia and find a cure rather than waiting to see if it will go away on its own - after all, the phobia may get worse if it is left untreated.

This page is probably a good place to talk about - expectations - and here I will describe a couple of my own experiences - I am not phobic about loud and sudden noises - so these accounts describe the 'normal' reactions to noise - but it also serves to show how our expectations can play a part.

I was about to walk past a military vehicle and, having seen the driver get into it a few moments before, I was expecting the vehicle's engines to start. I knew that this particular type of vehicle had two engines - a small three litre for electricity generation, and a twenty-seven litre for motivation, and it was normal to fire up the small engine first - so that is what I was EXPECTING. But the driver had other ideas - he turned over the large engine without bothering with the small one, and it backfired just as I was level with the exhaust stack - I was only about two feet from the end of the pipe... and I jumped so violently that my feet left the ground completely - much to the amusement of a couple of onlookers. So there was an enormous difference between what I was expecting and what actually happened - and what actually happened was much more violent than what I had been expecting - so it was quite a shock. Now if I had been EXPECTING a backfire then I would have remained calm whether it had happened or not.

At one time I was involved with testing high power audio systems - some with power output in kilowatts - and occasionally an engineer would play a trick on one of his colleagues - he would see another guy about to walk past one of the loudspeakers and just as he was right next to the speaker he would suddenly feed full power into it and see how much the guy would jump. On one occasion I was about to walk past some loudspeakers but out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw a movement which suggested to me that I was about to be blasted with sound as I got level with the column - so I was completely prepared for it - and sure enough the whole world shook with sound as I simply sauntered past the speakers without showing any reaction at all - so the joke was on the joker, but only because I had a moment or two to prepare myself for what would normally have been an extreme shock - I was EXPECTING it, so it was not a surprise when it happened.

How a balloon popping phobia can affect people's lives

There are two basic effects of the balloon popping phobia - the first and most obvious is that of isolation and the repercussions of that isolation, and the second effect concerns linking.

The situation where a balloon may pop will be avoided by someone with the phobia and the more severe the phobia the greater will be the effort to stay away from any environment where balloons are present. If the phobia starts when the person is very young, all events that may have balloons present will be avoided at all costs - birthday parties, fairs and celebrations of all kinds. If you don't mix with other children when you are young you fail to learn social skills and there is a danger that you can become something of an oddity and a loner.

When other children find out that you don't like balloons - some will be kind - others will not - most people with a childhood dislike of balloons find that other children can be very hurtful - I've heard stories about children being held down to the ground by other children and teased and taunted - and when a balloon is produced and one of the children starts to blow it up - then fear turns to terror. These experiences at such an early age can very easily scar the individual permanently - much other damage is done here such as the development of an extraordinary suspicion of others just at the time in life when we are supposed to be finding out where we fit in society and how to get on with other people.

Such negativity learned so early in life will almost invariably remain in some form or another - even after the phobia itself is cured. This is an enormous reason for you to continue searching - to continue to find out as much as you can about life and about people - we all miss out something during our childhood - anyone with a phobia can miss out a great deal.

Linking, or association, is a perfectly natural function - we soon learn to link flame with pain and this helps to protect us from burns through out life - we learn that being next to our parents is a safe haven where we can go. Most people learn that social gatherings can be a lot of fun and that parties are the most fun of all gatherings - and most people learn that friends are very special people who share parts of our lives. People who are phobic about balloons avoid the very situations most people consider to be fun, they sometimes have friends who still join in with a degree of torture about their strangeness, and occasionally it will have been a parent who was responsible for bursting a balloon too close to a child and that could be the incident that began the phobia, and sometimes the phobia can be initiated when a parent uses the bursting of a balloon as a punishment for some minor misdemeanor. The range of misunderstanding that can occur within a young mind is quite extraordinary and can lead directly to an uphill struggle that may not be realized by those who are around at the time.

On a very personal note, I came across the effects that the balloon popping phobia can have while pursuing further research into balloon fetishism - having discovered that there is often a relationship between the fetish and the phobia. I have had the honour of talking to a number of people in very intimate ways - some have told me about the nightmares - others have told me about the thoughts of suicide - many have talked with me about their lives in ways they could never do where there was anything less than complete trust. Although I have practiced psychotherapy I get the feeling that clients will tell you just enough to give you the tools to start to effect a cure, and then a little bit more if the cure seems to be comfortable. My experiences talking with balloon popping phobics has been much deeper than that and I send my heartfelt thanks to all who are involved, and hope that this site will help some to confront their fears and take action to overcome them.

Curing the phobia

There is a fairly obvious answer to the question 'can I be cured'... YES YOU CAN. I hope that there is much on this site that will help - but if you are still not sure of what to do - you need to keep on asking and trying to find ways you can get help.

As I've implied on the page about how the phobia can affect your life - there may be a whole load of other painful 'baggage' you are carrying around as well - and on top of that there may be other phobias - or the balloon popping phobia may be part of a larger concern. Whatever the problems they will respond to effort on your part - so start putting in the effort - one of my favorite sayings is 'it's surprising just how lucky you can get when you really put your back into something' - be lucky.

Balloon dangers

There are a few genuine dangers posed by balloons - we are probably all aware of the little warning label that appears on packets of balloons which tell us to keep an eye on kids to make sure they don't choke on them - well that's not quite the full story so here are a few more cautionary tales.

The Department of Trade and Industry ( UK ) has kindly sent me details of some 10,000 accidents where balloons were involved in one way or another - but while chatting with the helpful man from the DTI, he revealed that most of these accidents happened to children under the age of 10 years, and that accidents involving people above that age were few and far between. The balloon industry doesn't seem to have realized this - and the general public seem to have missed the point as well. A short while ago the 'standard' warning on a bag of balloons advised parental supervision of children of the age of six or less - then there was an unfortunate incident where a child of seven was severely and permanently damaged when a balloon got trapped in her larynx - not only that - a parent's attempt to give 'the kiss of life' was only inflating and deflating the balloon and not providing any oxygen to the unfortunate child. The parents set about suing the company who packaged the balloons stating that the warning label was insufficient. The balloon supply industry responded by changing the age on the warning label to eight.

There are a number of things to note here - there is no age limit for choking on a balloon - a great grandfather of 106 years can choke on a balloon if he is careless enough - with the best will in the world, there will always be accidents however careful we are.

And then there are the things that are truly unforseeable - a few years back, a young lady was blowing up a balloon for a party and felt a little faint and soon afterwards passed out. The emergency services were called but she died before they arrived - and there was nothing they could have done anyway - she had suffered a cranial embolism - a blood vessel had burst in her brain which had proved almost immediately fatal. There is not normally any way to tell if anyone is going to succumb to something like this - it just happens out of the blue.

Then there are people who enjoy blowing up a balloon until it pops - sometimes a piece of balloon can snap across areas of the face and close to eyes - popping with any other part of the body could result in similar damage.

So here is some advice that hopefully will keep you safe when playing with balloons. Young people should be supervised - anyone of any age who just might ingest or inhale a balloon or a part of a balloon should be supervised - remove parts of popped balloons from a kid's party area as soon as possible. If you feel faint while blowing up a balloon - stop just in case - and don't use more pressure than you are comfortable with - if the balloon is tough to blow then use a pump or go play with something else. Be careful when decorating a room with balloons - most balloon related accidents involve people falling from places they shouldn't have been standing on in the first place. Keep balloons away from eyes and ears - particularly with young children - a balloon popping violently close to a small child is about the easiest way to give the child a phobia that will prevent the enjoyment of parties and allow other children to be very nasty to your child when you are not looking - ok that sounds silly and over the top... but I can assure you that it can be quite devastating.

Professional balloon 'twisters' - those folks who make animals and hats from modelling balloons - can get repetitive strain injuries and they have to be careful to keep their cheeks tight and not to inflate them if they are not using a pump - modelling balloons can be hard to inflate by mouth - permanent damage can be done to the cheeks in the same way that playing a trumpet can do.

An allergy to latex is so very rare that most cases have been too poorly documented to be truly meaningful. It is unclear if the allergy is to the latex itself or to the additives that are used for a variety of purposes during balloon ( and glove ) manufacture. My own theory is that there could easily be a reaction to the 'coagulant' used in modern balloon production - this chemical should be washed away at the final stage of manufacture - incomplete washing could leave a powder coating on the balloon which would be visually indistinguishable from any talcum added to prevent the balloons from sticking together. The most violent reaction would be anaphalactic shock. There appears to be an implication that people who have an allergy to nuts could also be allergic to latex in some degree.

How common is a fear of balloons popping ?

Phobias can be anything from quite mild to extremely intrusive. A moderate fear of balloons bursting is fairly common, but it is only rarely debilitating. When it has started at an early age, the effects on a person's life can be quite devastating.

Mild feelings of unease when balloons are around will certainly respond to some of the suggestions elsewhere on this site - some of the desensitisation procedures may need to be modified slightly if the fear is only present when a balloon is being blown up.

Where the phobia is intrusive then it's a good idea to get as much information as possible about how you can be cured of it - you need to ignore the kind of people who just like to fool around with you since they will simply not be helpful, but do talk to people who take it seriously and are willing to help.

What do other people think of my fear of balloons ?

Children can be pretty cruel at times - fortunately the passage of time is a great educator and most people realize that frailties are quite common in the Human race and are happy to leave other peoples' problems alone without criticism. Having said that - there will always be someone who can't see how deep the pain can run and see the whole thing as a joke.

It is easy to say that you should avoid such people - but it's unlikely that you will find out who they are until they actually find out about it - as far as I can tell there are no specific guidelines which will tell you a character type which will be prone to treating is as a bit of a laugh. On the other hand a person who is kindly by nature is of course more likely to be sympathetic.

Recent media coverage (UK) has raised awareness about the balloon popping phobia so more people now understand that there is a genuine problem. My experience is that the vast majority of people are pleasant and caring - so most will try to be understanding and helpful.

If you find it difficult to buy balloons here is some advice.

If you have a phobia about balloons bursting then it can be embarrassing to walk into a shop to buy balloons - it is very easy to be very aware of the reason for the purchase all the time you are in the shop.

It is also possible that you are wary of balloons even when they are not blown up - that they remind you of the pop. You need to have a talk with yourself - and tell yourself the truth about the balloons - that they are perfectly harmless while they are not inflated - that there is no risk of them popping - then brace yourself and go and buy some.

Chose a shop where it is safe for you to buy balloons - chose a corner shop or a supermarket - NOT a balloon shop where there are likely to be balloons already blown up which will give you a hard time.

If you are embarrassed when buying balloons you may feel the need to give the shopkeeper a reason for your purchase without even being asked - or at least having a false reason ready just in case the shopkeeper makes a comment of some kind about the size or quantity of balloons being bought - this makes the situation feel more normal - less embarrassing for the person buying the balloons.

In fact it is mostly unnecessary to make any comments at all - the shopkeeper obviously stocked the balloons - whatever size or shape they are - with the idea that people would buy some of them from time to time... and that is exactly what you are doing - so this should not arouse any suspicions - in fact there is no reason for a conversation about them at all - usually a conversation takes place between a shopkeeper and a customer simply out of politeness - and the usual subjects are all the normal ones - the weather - the football - and the shopkeeper will naturally be interested in your purchases - it's his business to find out if he could sell you more of anything - so the natural question ' why are you buying so many balloons ' or the guess type of question - ' are you throwing a party then ' are perfectly normal ways in which the shopkeeper will try to make conversation. If the shopkeeper has only bought fifty of the balloons you have chosen - and you have just bought forty of them - he will want to know if you are going to want this quantity every week or every month... or never again - he wants to know if he needs to get some more from his suppliers.

Although many people know that balloon popping phobia exists it is unlikely that the shopkeeper is in any way suspicious of your purchase - and of course even if he is suspicious then it is none of his business anyway so it is extremely unlikely that anyone would ever ask you outright if there was any unusual purpose for the balloons - other people get embarrassed about personal matters that they don't understand too.

Often the best approach to buying balloons if you feel at all uncomfortable about it is to say nothing about your purchase but to have a 'story' ready in case you are asked why you are buying the balloons. I feel that this is particularly important if you have suffered ridicule about 'being scared of balloons' - such put-downs are not only most uncomfortable for you - they are also unhelpful to you in your search for a cure - so your 'story' should be 'normal' - say that you are buying them for a friend who is having a kid's party, or think up your own 'reason' for the purchase - but have the 'story' reasonably complete in your mind - the shopkeeper may ask more questions such as 'is it going to be a large party' - so you may need to have the answer to that ready - but remember that it is still actually none of his business so you can always answer with 'I don't know' to any further questions.

Was balloon phobia part of my destiny ?

Recent research has indicated that there is likely to be a link between our genetic make up and whether or not we will suffer from a phobic condition at some time in life. In any event, it has been estimated that one person in three will suffer from a phobia at some time - so we are talking about a common occurrence here.

The studies seem to indicate that there may be differing genetic structures which cause different types of phobia but only time and further research will determine that - for now we can only say for certain that there is likely to be a general susceptibility to developing a phobia of some kind. It has been observed that, in families where there is an obvious genetic disposition towards phobia development, there are a number of different phobias present - it is unusual for people within a family circle to suffer from the same set of phobias. It is also common, as with many other genetically controlled features, for characteristics to skip a generation - for a sibling to be a sufferer and the parent to be immune, but the grandparent to be a sufferer, and the great-grandparent to be unaffected.

The area of the genetic code that appears to affect the potential for phobias is closely associated with the area which determines pigmentation - the color of skin eyes and hair, so there may be racial stereotypes which have their basis in something much more certain than hearsay or reputation. It has been suggested that, because the genetic structure that appears to readily allow phobias to develop, is one that survives in a large proportion of the population, this facility was at some time and in some place, beneficial for survival. When Darwin spoke of the 'survival of the fittest' he was not talking about physical 'fitness' although that is never a bad thing, he was referring to people and creatures that had the skills which FITTED the needs of survival at a particular time and place. It would appear that there was a time in our past where people who were over-cautious had a better chance of survival.

Learning to blow up a balloon !

The lady in question is not exactly phobic about balloons - well just slightly - she doesn't like them being blown up - she is scared of them popping at this time and doesn't really worry about them being about - like anyone else she will jump if one does pop during the event but nothing more - but being there when they are inflated is just not on.

On one occasion I did see her being very brave and blowing up a balloon ! !

And it was on this occasion that I saw the problem - she just held the neck of the balloon between finger and thumb - and blew... and blew... how can I put this - the lady in question has quite appreciable lungs. So it was that I had to tell her when to stop.

Her 'spare' hand was doing nothing at all - most people put their other hand on the balloon and 'feel' what is going on - how 'tight' the balloon is getting - so they can judge when to stop so that it doesn't burst. Her lack of 'pressure monitoring' and her lack of experience blowing up balloons meant that she was very likely to pop them without trying - and then wondering why. Her daughter blows up balloons the same way but has better judgment.

So the way to blow up a balloon without bursting it is to have one hand on top of the balloon and sort-of squeeze it by pressing it into your body - if it reaches the stage when it starts to feel quite hard and there is very little 'give' when it is pressed then it is probably time to tie a knot in the neck.

The other sign that a balloon is getting towards its limit is the neck itself starting to expand. With some balloons this may start to happen quite early on because the way balloons are made means that the neck is actually the thinnest part - the reason that it doesn't blow up first is that a tube is a naturally stronger section than the sphere that forms the rest of the balloon.

A trick you can use when blowing up a long balloon is to blow up the strongest bit first - then you are less likely to overstress the weakest section. If you hold your hand over the upper part of the balloon to stop it inflating - and inflate the furthest end first - this is the bit that normally gets left uninflated - you can even stop blowing and squeeze the balloon so that the far end is fully blown up. This method can inflate the whole balloon - even that far end may stay blown up because a blown up section is actually weaker than the unblown bit. Having got the far end blown up you can carry on blowing until you get to the neck - but beware - sometimes the neck can be very much weaker and can suddenly inflate leaving you with no neck to tie a knot in.

Whatever you do - practice makes perfect - and if you can only start by blowing them up quite small - it's a start - an old Chinese proverb says that a long journey starts with a single step - time to take that step ?

Simple methods for a simple phobia

One normal approach is de-sensitisation - putting yourself into a controlled situation where you experience balloon popping in a way you can handle easily and then as you get used to it, moving on to harder tasks.

Balloons that are only slightly inflated only produce a quiet pop - it is the amount of pressure which is released suddenly which causes the bang. You can work out for yourself how you can go about it in a way that is comfortable for you but here are some suggestions.

Buy a big bag of balloons - probably the best size balloons to try will be those that will blow up to about nine inches - they will be about two inches / five centimeters across before inflation. there are some reasons for choosing this size - smaller balloons can be quite tough and can make a loud bang, and because you will have more control when you only slightly inflate them.

If you can't bring yourself to blow them up then get a friend to help you - it will need to be a friend who genuinely wants to help, and can do so without regarding the whole thing as silly, or being embarrassed about blowing up balloons - they need to be supportive - not dismissive.

Joseph Wolpe 20th April 1915 to 4th December 1997

Joseph Wolpe was born in South Africa and studied at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg where he obtained his MD. During the Second World War he worked in a military psychiatric hospital - his role as a medical officer in the South African Army.

After the war he worked at the University of Witwatersrand and began to devise 'systematic desensitisation' as a form of behavior therapy. Various therapeutic procedures, including psychoanalysis, seek to influence the mind on the understanding that having done so then any unwanted behavior will fade. Behavior therapy seeks to do the opposite - to change a person's behavior directly with the result that any related mental anguish will be eased.

Both approaches are valid because mental activity and behavior are dependent on each other - and neither one can be identified as the controlling entity. Although it is widely assumed that actions can only result from choice of mind, this is not so. For example, if a very shy person can be persuaded to 'act' confidently then that person will almost invariably report that they also feel more confident while they are performing this task, and repeated 'acting' results in a reinforcement of the confidence gained.

Desensitisation was originally criticised as a therapeutic process for only being useful in cases which are 'monosymptomatic' ie:- only have a single symptom whereas with more complex problems it was alleged that 'the deep cause ' of neuroses were left untouched by desensitisation. However there is no real proof that any such ' deep cause ' exists. Joseph Wolpe was particularly blunt in one of his replies to such criticism stating that "... because the psychoanalysts have misapprehended the requirements of scientific evidence they have adduced no acceptable support for their theory, beguiling themselves with surmises, analogies and extrapolations". He was also well qualified to comment since he was a psychoanalyst himself until dissatisfaction with the limitations of his own art encouraged him to re-assess the needs of his patients resulting in the birth of behavioral therapies in the early 1950s. There are still unnecessary insults hurled from one camp to the other - one Doctor of psychoanalysis writing in 2002 incorrectly describes Joseph Wolpe as 'a behavioral psychologist... who was actually studying cats more than dealing with clients'. Studying cats was certainly involved in the thought processes that spawned the concept of behavior therapy in Wolpe's mind - but by definition, behavioral psychology did not exist at this time - it was only when Wolpe applied his feline observations to the human condition that behaviorism began to be evolved. It is clear though, that such description wishes us to see Wolpe as a rural incompetent which is so very far from the truth and is unhelpful to the progress of all psycho-science. My own opinion is based purely on practical concerns - why bother with things that remain unproven when there are procedures ( Including those that use behavior therapy ) which are clearly defined and work well.

Both phobias and more complex neuroses develop as a result of the learning process going astray so desensitisation aims to enable people to 're-learn'. On finding that we have been wrongly informed about ordinary facts and figures, re-learning is easy - if, for some reason we have been taught that two plus two equals five, then on discovering that that is incorrect we simply replace the incorrect data with the right answer - this occurs in our 'higher' memory which is very much under our control.

If the false learning is associated with instincts it is linked with our primitive ( hypothalamic) brain functions it is not so easily changed since it forms part of our fundamental structure, usually as a process related to development. To try to clarify this - we all have the instinct to avoid anything that would cause us physical injury - that is all part of the instinct to survive - it is a necessary result of our genetic structure, however we have to learn what things and situations could possibly cause physical injury. Because this information is vital to our survival, we take it very seriously, so we naturally allow such learning to take control.

Where someone has 'learnt' that a balloon represents potential danger and this learning is linked to instinctive processes, then that person takes every precaution to avoid balloons - in exactly the same way that people in general avoid other such learnt dangers such as putting ones hand into flames. Even if such a person can realize on a technical level that balloons do not represent a life threatening hazard, the association of balloons with instinct means that it is a harder thing to re-learn, and therefore such re-learning needs a process which is different and more comprehensive than simply replacing false data with true knowledge, and desensitisation is one such process which can achieve this. In fact where balloons are seen instinctively as a danger but there is a reasoned understanding that they are not a threat, this internal conflict may add to any anxiety that is felt.

The self therapy that I have suggested on this site is somewhat different to the therapy you would receive from a behavior therapist - essentially because the therapist is not present, but an explanation of the normal process could be helpful.

The first step in the process is to produce a 'hierarchy' which is a list of situations which cause you anxiety with the most disturbing at the top of the list and numbered '1' with the next most disturbing at number 2 and so on until all the situations that appear to require therapy have been listed. For convenience the list can be limited to ten suitable items. Behavior therapy is interested in what is known as 'stimulus - response' and to define both accurately in the hierarchy - in the case of balloon popping phobia a stimulus would be being close to a balloon and the response would be fear or anxiety - and behavior therapy simply seeks to change the response to a greater calmness by learning this new response.

It is, at this stage, useful to look at the nature of the problem that is effectively defined by the hierarchy. Where there is a range of problems which are all related it is normally defined as a 'simple neurosis' - so single phobias fall into this category. Where there several categories represented in the list of problems it is usually referred to as a 'complex neurosis'. There may be links between problems that appear to be unrelated which the therapist will try to uncover by general enquiry so that any past events that may have initiated more than one problem area can be brought into the open so that they can be discussed and understood by the client.

During therapy the client is encouraged into a very relaxed state which is by definition incompatible with fear, and is asked to imagine a situation which is related to a mild form of the least disturbing problem on the hierarchy. This is continued until the situation itself can be imagined in its entirety and so confidence in meeting this situation in real life is established. It is unusual, but not unknown, for the patient to be taken into the real situation by the therapist where there appears to be incomplete success using the imagination technique.

Once the least disturbing situation on the list is overcome then therapy is concentrated on the next anxiety causing situation and so on until all the items on the list have been dealt with satisfactorally. If the list contains many items then therapy can take quite a time - Joseph Wolpe's own figures for a period of his own work which he monitored shows that for simple neuroses the average number of therapeutic sessions required was 15, whereas where complex neuroses were found the number of sessions required was 55. Every form of therapy enjoys some success and occasional failures - behavior therapy having one of the best track records with an achievable success rate close to 90% whereas the average success rate for all therapeutic processes is only 50%.

I am certain that Joseph Wolpe was right to criticise psychoanalysts for their reliance on unproven, and often unprovable, theories, but that is not to say that underlying causes do not exist, just that they are unlikely to be defined in any accurate way using psychoanalytical terminology. Everyday language should be sufficient to describe everyday events but that in itself is no guarantee that we understand the all the implications of particular happenings in our lives - indeed we may not remember some of the things that cause us problems because we can easily repress or blot out any memories which are uncomfortable or unsavoury, and it may take a discussion with a highly trained therapist to rediscover lost memories and to understand their significance.

Another therapy that was developed by Joseph Wolpe is called assertiveness training. The therapy helps people to stand their ground and is designed to build self confidence, so with this general approach it can help with a wide variety of problems. It is important to understand that the aim is simply to provide a person with the tools to support their individuality - to make sure that no-one is able to take advantage of someone they may think of as weaker, it is not about learning to impose on or control other people - but to be able to resist the efforts of others who wish to do that to us.

Assertiveness training can take place in groups so it is useful to people who wish their problems to remain a secret while gaining confidence in the group situation. Assertiveness trainers will not always inquire about your reasons for attending the group and the question can be sidestepped anyway - or you can say 'I would rather not be specific' if asked. The group normally uses role play in order to allow people to get used to situations which can be upsetting, such as arguments or the prospect of complaining about faulty goods or poor workmanship. Also there are usually exercises which seek to encourage the group to rely on each other. In one such exercise, a member of the group stands in the middle of a circle formed by the rest of the group. The person in the middle is encouraged to 'let go' by closing their eyes and allowing themselves to become unbalanced - the circle of people around are there to catch the falling person and gently push that person upright again, the result is that the person in the middle is gently pushed backwards and forwards and left and right. This is allowed to take place for up to a minute, and each person in the group takes turns in the middle.

This teaches each member of the group that they can rely on each other, with the wider implication that there are circumstances where they can trust other people as well.

Following his research at the University of Witwatersrand Joseph Wolpe moved to the USA where he taught at the University of Virginia. In 1965 he became a professor of psychiatry at Temple University Medical School in Philadelphia where he stayed until his retirement in 1988. That same year he moved to California where he was soon back in action lecturing at Pepperdine University and was doing so until a month before his death in his 84th year.

The thoughts and inventions of one person are often merged into other therapies to some extent and also can act as a catalyst which enable others to think of new ways to approach therapy and help people with their lives. There are very few people who have had the dedication or the capacity to make the enormous contribution to the practice of the psychological sciences that has been made by Joseph Wolpe.

A mental technique

What we are thinking at any one time is often just the thoughts that seem to come into our minds. These thoughts are usually a result of HABIT - they are structured around our everyday lives and our ambitions for the future.

There is an alternative which will take a little imagination but can be very worthwhile. You can CHOSE what to think at any given moment. If you are not in the habit of changing what you are thinking simply because you want to, then this may not be easy to begin with but it is worth persevering.

Imagination is a truly wonderful thing - you can imagine yourself in absolutely any situation you want to - and you can imagine your reaction to that situation as well - and you can replay the scene in your mind again and you can CHANGE your reaction. For example if you imagine that the boss calls you in to his office and tells you that you are going to be made redundant next week - most peoples' reaction would be shock and dismay. We may imagine the sort of things we would like to say to the boss under these circumstances - it's all happening safely inside your head - so you can tell the boss exactly what you think - or you could imagine what would really happen - you might say that you are sorry to be going - not much more to say you'd be too much in shock.

Do you need to change your attitude ?

Forgiveness may seem to be a strange thing to talk about when you are looking for a cure to a phobia, but it is an essential attitude if you are to have complete inner calmness. Forgiveness is not just a healthy attitude, but there may be people who you need to forgive. If you are bearing any kind of grudge then the only sufferer is you. Harbouring negative thoughts about anyone - including yourself, is only debilitating for you - no-one else - so it's time to forget the wrongs that others have done to you - and forget the mistakes that you have made - you can't go back over them now - the clock only moves forwards.

So teach yourself to be forward looking and you will start to plan for the future instead of responding to the past.

It may be that you remember the exact details of an incident that was the start of your phobia - some people remember a balloon being burst very close to them or a balloon that was burst as a punishment or during an argument - whatever the situation, the bursting balloon may have become forever associated with the negativity of the situation. It may have been an unfortunate accident, or it may have been a nasty deliberate act - but whichever it was - and whoever was involved - now is the time to forgive them - either for their error or for their belligerence to continue to hold them responsible in any way, tends to relieve you of your responsibility to yourself to rid yourself of this phobia. If it remains someone elses fault then it is easy to assume that you can't do much about it - if you forgive them for whatever part they appear to have played, then there remains only one person who is responsible for continuing to feel badly about balloons bursting... - you - so now you are in a position to do something about it.

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