I read an interesting post here about a physician confronting a patient with a critical health problem that required a needle stick to solve and, wouldn’t you know, the patient had a mortal fear of needles. The physician eventually handled the problem by calling the patient’s boyfriend who drove several hundred miles overnight to threaten the patient with a relational breakup if she didn’t take the shot. She did and everything apparently worked out.
Does persuasion offer a way to handle a problem like this? Yeah. Just hold your breath. Really. Holding your breath can actually solve this. Read on.
The post describes a classic example of a classically conditioned phobic response. The patient had a mortal fear of needles and her medical records noted prior events where several adults literally had to hold her down to administer a medically needed and legal shot. We all have experience with shots and while most of us don’t need to be held down by six strong medical assistants, we still have fear, so we have a general acquaintance with this situation.
In persuasion terms, drawn from a vast scientific body of behavioral research, we have a classically conditioned response. A needle stick does elicit a pain response and this pain response often triggers negative emotional responses. Further, we anticipate the shot in a novel and uncertain situation and such situations also tend to produce negative emotional responses. Thus, we have a basic S->R element (S of novelty and uncertainty -> R of fear and anxiety; S of needle stick -> R of pain and fear). Now, we just add in elements of the situation – the sight of a white lab coat, the unique smells in the office, the sounds of piped music in a waiting room – so that whenever we experience those formerly neutral stimuli, we Ding-Dong the fear. And, if you do this long enough, you can just think about scheduling a shot to produce the bad Ding-Dong.
Of course, we know that this conditioning process is not unique to getting shots. Just being a normal human gives us the ability to Ding-Dong our thoughts, feelings, and actions with almost anything at anytime in any situation.
Now, how do you break a bad Ding-Ding?
One obvious way is to use a new response to compete with the old response. The technical term is “reciprocal inhibition” which is another way of saying when you do the old Ding-Dong, I’m gonna hit you with a new Ding-Dong that’s stronger. And as you try harder to do the old Ding-Dong, you actually make the new Ding-Dong stronger, hence the “reciprocal inhibition.”
Here’s where holding your breath enters the scence.
Right now, imagine you are in the doctor’s office. A nurse wears an evil grin on her face as she holds an ENORMOUS needle, dripping with glistening glop, as she approaches your naked shoulder. She holds the GIGANTIC needle above her head like a murder weapon, ready to plunge that potion into your body.
Visualize this. Make it real. Make it intense.
Now, hold your breath while I count to 20.
While I count and you hold your breath, keep thinking about that shot. Keep it real.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, see it, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, visualize it, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20.
Now, take a breath. And let’s do this again. You visualize the shot and hold your breath while I count to 20 . . .
. . . okay, stop thinking about the shot and if you’ve forgotten, please, take a breath or maybe two right now and let’s ponder this.
You’re thinking about a fearful event and the harder you think about it, the more intense the feeling. You are deliberately triggering the bad Ding-Dong. But, as you do this, we add a competing response, the breath holding. As you hold your breath and try to think about the bad Ding-Dong, you will eventually find that it is difficult to think about it because you are running out of breath and you are also experiencing a noxious and uncomfortable response that is stronger than the fear and worry from the old Ding-Dong.
As we repeat this, you will find it harder to generate the bad Ding-Dong because breathing is more important than fear and worry in your head. You will stop experiencing the bad Ding-Dong in the immediate situation. And, if we do this play several times in one session, then practice it alone a few times, then maybe do the play with the “doctor” (or whomever did this with us the first time) once more, you might actually end the bad Ding-Dong and never experience significant trouble with it again. (That depends on a lot of other factors, but you see the possibility.)
If you are untrained in behavioral psychology, this may sound crazy. Yeah, right. Somebody’s scared to death about needles or snakes or public speaking and make them hold their breath to cure them? Sure, and I’ve got email from a Nigerian prince with a bank account number.
I appreciate your skeptism and have a couple of ideas for you to consider. First, if you have access to PsycNet, search on the key term, “rapid desensitization,” and read what you get. Second, you can read this PDF link that describes this process from a professional bulletin of the Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies. Third, do a Google search on the key terms of “rapid desensitization” and “cognitive behavior therapy” and read professional sources there.
During my Master’s work I trained in clinical and counseling psychology and thought about a career path in that direction. Some of the best science I read was coming out of the then (1975) emerging field of cognitive behavioral therapy led by people like Albert Ellis, Joseph Wolpe, and Don Meichenbaum. They started the break with “talking cures” by employing rigorous empirical testing with randomization and control rather than the anecdotal approach favored by the medical model from psychodynamic therapies (e.g. Freud). If you want the great weariness of knowledge, you can read great experimental studies from the 1960s and 1970s that formed the foundation for CBT that still drives the field today.
And, something as simple as holding your breath can actually work in a scientifically demonstrated proof.
This is a complex post, so let’s summarize.
1. Lots of negative emotional responses are Ding-Dongs.
2. You can use science to change Ding-Dongs.
3. “Reciprocal inhibition” works by adding a new Ding-Dong to an old Ding-Dong.
4. Use breath holding as the competing response to the old Ding-Dong.
5. Hey, use your head with this and don’t pass out. This isn’t autoerotic asphyxiation!
6. While this isn’t rocket science, brain surgery, or even global warming studies, Read More About It!
7. Try it for yourself as a control strategy for your own worries, fears, anger, etc. Focus on the bad Ding-Dong, then hold your breath and count to 20 or until it gets uncomfortable. Use a timer, maybe. Repeat it until you stop feeling the bad Ding-Dong.
8. If you’ve got a Really Bad Ding-Dong, seek out a CBT specialist.
Now, let’s think about our flu shots!
P.S. You might like reading these related posts on Ding-Dongs.
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