Our last post talked about the difference between fear and a phobia, and what it feels like to have a phobia. Once one knows the implications of living with a phobia, it becomes easier to empathise with those dealing with one.
As a next step, one might ask – How can I deal with my phobia?
Since phobias vary in intensity, there are different means by which one may effectively deal with them. Self-help strategies can be effective in overcoming low-intensity phobias. Low intensity phobias are those that do not get in the way of your daily life, such as a fear of bats (odds of encountering the flying mammals are rather low unless you intend to star in the next Man Vs. Wild series!). However, if you suffer a fear of crowded places, or a fear of elevators, living in the city would be very difficult. High intensity phobias might need professional help, in addition to self help.
We discuss some ways in which you can deal with a phobia below:
How to Deal with a Phobia?
Accept the Phobia and know that it is not your fault:
It becomes easy to criticise yourself for being fearful, or weak. However, that makes things even harder, since resisting a feeling is like not looking at what exists. Gently accept whatever you feel, while remaining compassionate to yourself. A phobia usually means that there are underlying fears or anxieties which need to be gently addressed. These could range from childhood experiences, long standing feelings, a fear of being oneself, low self-confidence etc. In order to address these, it is necessary that there is a gentle acceptance of what you feel.
List your Goals and Motivations:
Listing your goal, for example, “I want to overcome my fear of spiders”, often helps; once you are compassionate to yourself. Writing down the reasons you want to overcome your fear, for example, “I want my children to know I’m strong enough to do this”, helps you remain motivated towards trying to overcome your fear.
Engage in Self Exposure:
Work on slowly bringing yourself to face the object of your phobia. In the case of arachnophobia, that would mean beginning by looking at pictures of spiders, and later increasing proximity with real spiders, until a certain comfort level is achieved. Again, this must be done repeatedly and regularly, without self-indulgent cheating! Keep an exposure homework diary, where you can note down every small step of your progress. You must bear in mind, however, that self-exposure would only be advisable for low-intensity phobias that would not much hamper everyday functioning. Also, remember not to overexpose. Keep exposure times brief and extend effort just a little bit more than what you usually do. For example, if you cannot tolerate looking at a spider, see if you can look at a spider’s picture from the room’s entrance, even if it is just for a few seconds. Be careful not to overdo, and to gradually increase exposure as you feel settled and ready.
Learn Relaxation Techniques:
Learning and using practices such as such as mindful meditation, rhythmic exercise and yoga can help effectively reduce distress stemming from a phobia. Even simple breathing exercises or counting from one to ten in your head when overwhelmed with panic can help. These should be practised regularly when in a relaxed state of mind so that you become accustomed to calming down quickly when anxious. Learning relaxation also helps in self-exposure, since you can enter exposure in a relaxed state – for example, see the spider’s picture when you feel relaxed and ready. You can also continue to practice the relaxation response through the exposure, for example, continue to stay with the breath while you watch the spider.
Pause when Negative Thoughts occur:
What often gets in the way of managing a phobia is a negative chain of thoughts that makes you underestimate your ability to cope with a feared object or situation. For example, sometimes, dramatic, or catastrophic thoughts occur, “That man in the elevator sneezed on me, I’m sure to fall sick!”, “I’m sure to forget my speech and look like a total clown!” Pause when such thoughts occur. Gently remember that these thoughts are occurring more because of the overall state of mind. You can practice the relaxation response while reminding yourself about how these are simply anxious thoughts that are exaggerated. Moreover, the probability of them ringing true is low. Just like super happy thoughts – ‘My life is great! Everything will be wonderful now on!’ are not realistic, super worrisome thoughts too, don’t paint a true picture of reality.
Once you pause, let more realistic versions of reality arise, such as, ‘That guy sneezed on me, but it is not necessary that I should fall sick.’ ‘ I might forget a few lines, but if I allow myself a few seconds it might come back.’
Moreover, practice the relaxation response and ask yourself if contracting the common cold or forgetting a few lines is worth all the anxiety you go through.
Congratulate yourself on facing your fears:
Positive self-reinforcement is an important part of achieving your goals. Acknowledge your progress, no matter how small. Small steps can be very encouraging and make way for relief and freedom, mentally and physically. Go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back for swatting that spider on your window-sill all by yourself!
If you think that it could be hard to cope with the phobia by yourself, you can always seek help from a mental health professional. It is also not advisable to deal with high intensity phobias completely by yourself. Help is more accessible with therapists, psychiatrists, support groups etc being around. Do reach out, since some support can be very helpful in encouraging whatever effort you are already putting in.
Phobias can definitely be worked with. Talk to your near ones, take support and you’ll do much better 🙂
Post Contributed By: Suneha Sethi and Malini Krishnan
Suneha is a student of psychology and interned with us in April-May 2017. In her internship, she helped in writing blog posts and articles that could be helpful. She also helps in sharing meaningful content on social media. Malini is a psychologist at Inner Space. You can read more about her here.