Phobias can be incredibly debilitating. So much so that some people can end up finding living a normal life impossible. A friend of mine, for example, was terrified of water. As a child, she’d been told by a holy man that a member of her family would drown. It had affected her so deeply she was even too frightened to wash her hair under the shower! She had to do it separately in the sink!
And that isn’t even such a bad one. There are much worse phobias that can make it difficult to lead a normal life. If that’s true for you and you want to get your life back, then you’ll want to take steps to deal with such things.
Fortunately, scientists and psychologists have spent a lot of time considering how to deal with phobias and have found there are a number of ways to do so. The first thing that you need to understand is that there is no one sure-fire way to deal with all phobias. You’ll have to consider carefully what will work for you.
Also, don’t be afraid (wrong word?) to see a counsellor or ask advice from somebody with the right training to take care of your mental health. They might be able to offer you helpful suggestions that are specifically relevant to your situation.
Got all that? Okay, let’s look at the most effective ways to deal with phobias.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
The most widely accepted way to deal with phobias is cognitive behavioural therapy. It has a huge amount of empirical evidence that supports it. And, barring the occasional therapist who doesn’t like this form of therapy, is generally the most advised way to deal with phobias.
How does it work? Well, a phobia is an unconscious connection between some object, idea or thing with your fear response. For some reason, your brain has made the connection that something is dangerous and triggers a fight or flight (mainly flight) response when you see that object.
Cognitive behaviour therapy tries to change that connection. By exposing you to the dangerous situation in a controlled environment it tries to habituate you to the response and thereby reduce the fear reaction that you experience.
How this is done depends on the severity of the phobia. If the phobia is mild, then you might get t o see the object behind glass, for example. If the phobia is severe, on the other hand, then you might even only begin by reading about it in an article.
The goal is to retrain your mind into realizing that the thing that you’re afraid of doesn’t actually have any harmful consequences. To that end, it is incredibly important for this kind of therapy to be effective that the situation is well managed. Because if it’s not, the phobia can kick in and – though the object hasn’t actually done anything to you – still reinforce the phobia by way of the size of the response.
This is why, during cognitive behavioural therapy the councillor will often ask you to say how much fear you’re feeling on a 10-point scale. This they do to make sure that if it becomes too much, they can then have you pull back, so as to avoid making the session counterproductive.
For this kind of therapy to be effective it is important that it is repeated often and that the stimulation is slowly increased over time. From reading about it, you’ll go to seeing a picture. From a photo, you move to a video and from there you move to see the item in a cage or glass box and slowly coming closer to it each time.
If you want to do this without a councillor
This form of therapy can be done without a councillor. It basically means repeating the above exercise with somebody that you trust. If you do follow this route, remember these things.
- Don’t force yourself. This can ultimately make the situation worse. It is better to go slow but steady. For that, as they say, wins the race.
- You want to book progress. Though you don’t need there to be improving every single time, it is important that over time you get closer to the object of your fear. Only in that way can you condition your mind so as to realize its extreme fear response is excessive. Then your fear will be recalibrated downwards.
- It will take time. Don’t give up. The above two points give you a narrow band in which to operate. You don’t want to push too hard as that can backfire and you don’t want to go too slow as then you might end up not booking any progress.
- The person you want to help you with this has to be both patient and empathic. If they’re not, it can lead to all sorts of problems.
Another common technique is to sit down with other people who have phobias and discuss the nature of your fear with them. The main advantage to having these kinds of talk sessions is that having a phobia can be both very lonely and make you feel like you’re strange or weird. Seeing those other people also have such fears can help you realize that this is not the case. There are a lot of people who have phobias. And seeing how other people deal with such fears can help you confront and deal with your own and don’t take things so personally.
For this to be effective, however, it is important that you have somebody who is in charge who knows what they’re doing. Otherwise the risk exists that instead of helping each other overcome such fears, the discussions make them worse by creating even greater anxiety in all parties.
For that reason, don’t decide to simply start such a group on your own. It is a better idea to find a group in your community which is already talking and which is being led by somebody who understands what you’re going through and what you may need.
In the past it was incredibly common for people to sit down with a therapist and discuss their fears. This does work up to a certain level. But if you’re going down this route, it will take longer. It can take months or even years for some people to overcome their phobias in this way.
In large part, that’s because the actual phobia itself is not being addressed and be decoupled from the strong response that you’re experiencing. Instead, you’re moving around the problem and skirting the topic. This will make the whole affair a lot slower.
If you’re okay with that, then that’s fine. What’s more, in some situations the phobia might be too severe for cognitive behavioral therapy. Similarly, it is entirely possible that you aren’t experiencing one phobia but several different ones at the same time. In this case, it can be difficult to deal with them all together. Instead, you want to tease them apart so that you can deal with them individually (and have a better understanding of what you’re feeling).
After that, it might well be a good idea to use cognitive behavioral therapy. To deal with the individual problems and become accustomed to the problems once again.
What about medicine?
Medicine can be effective – though it will rarely be so on its own. What medicine can do is help reduce the severity of the reaction you have to being exposed to your phobia.
- Beta-blockers to block the effect of the adrenalin that your brain secretes upon seeing the source of your phobia
- Antidepressants, or SSRIs, to act on the serotonin in your brain and thereby give you a buffer
- Sedatives to relax and reduce anxiety if that’s the main problem of your phobia
Often, these medicines are used in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy when your phobia is incredibly severe, so that the chance that you’ll actually experience a debilitating attack are severely reduced.
In this way, it will be less stressful to deal with the initial stages of the exposure. Of course, sooner or later you will want to continue this kind of therapy without the actual drugs or with a reduced dosage.
That sounds really difficult
You’re right, it does. Dealing with a phobia is no fun. But the alternative is even less so. The truth is that if you’re suffering from a phobia as an adult, it can take years for the phobia to get under control – if at all. Better, then, to bite the bullet and try to deal with it – preferably with the help of others.
Whatever you do, don’t blame yourself for your phobia. Often, phobias originate in the unconscious mind – and that’s pretty much a black box, both to ourselves and to science as a whole. It is hard to understand what’s going on in there.
Besides, we can’t go back. So, there isn’t much to be gained with regret or similar emotions. Better instead to accept the situation that you find yourself in and then to try to move forward from there. That is healthier. What’s more, it is entirely possible to overcome your phobias. Millions of people have before you and millions more will after you.
It is up to you whether you want to be one of those people. Yes, it will be hard. But look at the bright side. Once you’ve managed to overcome this extreme fear you’ll be in a position to overcome almost anything. Because almost invariably the thing holding us back in life are the demons in our own minds.