Terrified of fire, the skilled and dangerous Westeros fighter is easily defeated by his fear. But we can learn to overcome phobia quickly with a few mental exercises. By therapist Christopher Paul Jones
While Jon Snow and the Queen of Dragons took centre stage in the penultimate season of Game of Thrones there’s another character that’s secretly been stealing our attention.
He doesn’t have the brooding good looks of the King of the North, or the quick wit of the one-handed yet still brilliant swordsman Jaime Lannister, but in George R. R. Martin’s scary and traumatic world, The Hound is the man overcoming his own demons.
Sandor Clegane, played by Rory McCann, is a giant, and regarded as one of the most skilled and dangerous fighters in Westeros – until he sees fire and becomes a terrified wreck: classic phobia symptoms.
The Hound has developed and grown over the seasons of HBO TV hit, GoT, and his journey has also illustrated in detail how a phobia can start and impact a person’s life.
Playing With Fire
The series introduces the Hound’s fear of fire in the first season. Little Finger Petyr Baelish tells Sansa that Sandor’s brother Sir Gregor (the Mountain) got revenge on him by pushing his face into a brazier for stealing his toy:
‘Gregor never said a word. He just grabbed his brother by the scuff of his neck and shoved his face to the burning coals and held him there while the boy screamed as his face melted.’
In Season Two, in the battle of the Black Water as Stannis tries to take Kings Landing, the Hound is fighting and is charged at by a man on fire. Instantly, he freezes in fear, then leaves the battle and walks out of the city.
We see his fear again when he fights Lord Beric Dondarrion who uses a flaming sword. The Hound’s shock is so evident that Arya Stark realises he has a fear of fire.
The Triggers for Phobia
So, can you be that tough, strong and fearless and still have a phobia?
Of course – phobias have nothing to do with how tough or how smart you are. It starts with an experience which triggers the brain to link fear to an event or object.
I have worked with all sorts of very tough people – martial arts experts, military men, and Special Forces guys; they have done and seen things most people would find terrifying, yet have a phobia of something most people wouldn’t be bothered by, like going in a lift. This is because phobias are not based on logic.
With the Hound, it is very obvious what started his phobia, but for most people it is not always that clear, it could be almost anything. If, for example, you have a fear of flying, it could be that as a young child you experienced a turbulent flight and in that moment your mind linked flying to danger. Or it could be that you were watching a TV show where somebody falls off a cliff and in that moment your mind creates a fear of heights. Even watching how your parents reacted to a spider could be enough to create the same fear in you. If this fear is deep enough, whenever you encounter that thing again you will have the same emotions and feelings around it.
Could the Hound remove his phobia? Yes – and the first step is to help him create a place of safety in is mind. Clegane asks: ‘Safety, where is that?’ and that suggests to me that right now in his subconscious mind, there is a pattern recognition system running, where he sees fire and reacts with fear and because of this, his mind tries to make him run. One way to create safety, so it’s easier for him to let go of his fear, is to create a trigger for safety that is linked to positive feelings and emotions.
Overcoming The Fear
The key is to think of or imagine times when you felt completely calm. It could be sitting on beach, or with family or friends, basically anything that makes you feel relaxed and safe. Now imagine going back to that time and notice all the images, feelings and sounds that go with this event. When you have fully connected to this positive event, squeeze your fist to create a link between the emotion and the gesture, and as the emotion fades release your fist. Keep repeating this as many times as you like and then test it by squeezing your fist. Notice what you feel. If it’s strong enough, just the act of squeezing your fist in future will bring back that feeling of safety.
Once we have done that, we can now re-educate his subconscious to see fire (and anyone with a phobia to face their fear) and not become terrified. One way to do this is through ‘cross lateral stimulation.’ Basically, if you focus on your fear while doing the exercises described below, the mind cannot hold the fear and focus on the exercises at the same time, so the mind starts to let go of the fear. This is most effectively when done on the first, or trigger, event. In the Hound’s case, it would be going back to when his brother attacked him.
To do this, look straight ahead while thinking about your fear. Now, allow your eyes to move slowly from left to right passing between the bridge of your nose. Keep repeating this left to right process, while thinking about your fear, and you’ll notice your phobia reduce in intensity. Another way to help the Hound would be to reduce the intensity of the images he links to the phobia. This could be done by making the event funny, because it’s very hard for the mind to hold two opposite emotions at the same time. If you play around with the event and make the images small, remove the colour and run it backwards, or give it Mickey Mouse ears and circus music, it changes the dynamics. Keep playing with the images until the feelings associated with it are reduced.