Most people have an aversion to creepy crawlies, heights or enclosed spaces but fewer no the crippling fear and panic that go hand in hand with a phobia. Around 19.2 million adult Americans live with a phobia or extreme fear of some sort. For those people, it can be an isolating experience that they struggle to communicate to friends, family and loved ones. A phobia can also be extremely damaging to the psyche and impede people in their day-to-day life. The sheer range of subjects about which one can be phobic, coupled by the almost unbearable sense of dread and anxiety that manifests in people with phobias make it a very real and serious psychological condition.
Living with a phobia can be at best inconvenient and at worst debilitating. It can prevent you from taking a family vacation, allowing your child to take in a pet, or going to the dentist. Nobody who lives with a phobia wants to continue to suffer, but it can be difficult to determine the best way to fight your phobias. WHile there are a variety of coping strategies, among the most potent is understanding.
It’s not always clear how or why phobias occur but they tend to be linked to (sometimes forgotten) traumatic experiences in childhood, adolescence or the early years of adulthood. They can also be learned by observing the behavior of others as we grow up. If your Mom got freaked out by spiders when you were little, chances are you’ll grow up to be scared of spiders too. More complex phobias like agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) or social phobia are thought to be caused by a perfect storm of genetic and neurochemical factors.
Symptoms of phobias
Many people living with phobias don’t understand the distinction between a fear and a phobia. While in many ways they are the same, the symptoms of a phobia are often much more pronounced. When brought into contact with a ‘stressor’, be it a rat, a spider, an airplane or a crowded shopping mall, the body produces a surge of adrenaline initiating a ‘fight or flight’ response in the reptilian brain and causing a state of panic, which may also include:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
If you experience these symptoms, then there’s a good chance you’re experiencing a phobia rather than a fear.
Having identified the causes and symptoms of phobias, let’s have a look at some strategies to stop them from taking control of your life. As with any form of cognitive therapy, these strategies require effort and persistence but if you stick with them can make a real difference.
The most important thing is to remember that anxiety is a perfectly natural survival mechanism. These strategies are designed to help manage anxiety, not eliminate it.
‘Realistic Thinking’– This is a form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It requires you to explore your phobia with some searching questions. What is it that you’re really afraid of? Most of us know that a crowd, a rat or a spider pose little physical threat to us, so why do they cause us anxiety? These can be difficult questions to ask ourselves and we’re often unable to answer them which leads us to…
Research– There’s nothing as terrifying as the unknown, and our imaginations have a tendency to warp and exaggerate unknown commodities. Research the animal you’re afraid of, or the technical specifications of planes if you’re afraid of flying.You may find that the more you know and understand, the less you fear.
Controlled exposure– This is the most effective coping strategy but it’s extremely important not to rush it. How you carry out a controlled exposure will depend on your phobia. If, for example, you’re afraid of the dentist’s then a very gradual exposure to the practice is the way to go. Begin with walking in and out of the practice with a partner or friend. After a while, see if you can walk into the building on your own. The next day, try sitting in the waiting area (accompanied for around 10-15 minutes). After you’ve done this, as your partner to leave you there alone for ten minutes but ensure they’re on standby if it does get too much. Then, make an appointment with your dentist just to talk and get to know them. If you need to bring someone else in with you then that’s absolutely fine too. When you’re ready allow them to look inside your mouth then graduate to a clean and polish and eventually to whatever work you may need done.