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Facing up to a phobia

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

We have heard about all kinds of fears and phobias, we may even know someone who has one. But what do we know about how to overcome them? Is it straightforward? Is it possible? There are many schools of thought out there and, while there is that old nugget of “just get on with it” which can often plague casual conversation about phobias, there are some people who are taking ownership of theirs and working hard to overcome them.

Phobias are defined as a persistent fear of a specific situation, activity or thing, which lead to intense emotions and often avoidant behaviours. The number of people who have phobias isn’t easily quantified as a result of the sufferers actions to avoid their specific phobia, but make no mistake, they are more common than you might expect. 

As the pressures of 21st Century life continue to bear down on us, the recognition and naming of new phobias continues. So beyond claustrophobia (fear of small, confined or crowded spaces), there is the fear of people talking about you and stopping when you enter the room (antefamaphobia) and the fear of being ridiculed (catagelophobia). The increasingly digital social existence, this year in particular due to Covid-19, is also encouraging the phobias of being without a connection to the internet, our devices and even a fear of being deleted.

When considering how they can affect us, phobias can vary from things that  generate anxiety and stress during exposure, to crippling fear at even the shortest of exposures. As such, the approach to overcoming a phobia will vary from person to person, and be informed by the nature of it too. But one which is proving to be effective is exposure therapy, while simultaneously working through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with a professional. At its root, it is essentially controlled exposure to those things which instill anxiety or that can cripple us, and this can be done in a number of ways, all the while documenting and sharing the experience and the resulting feelings. 

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is a hands on approach to counselling, where you develop the ability to manage your feelings and thoughts which will, in turn, lead to changes in your behaviours. By identifying what is challenging and the resulting emotions, the conscious changing of behaviours becomes more straightforward. This is why it can be very effective in overcoming a phobia. It is practical and goal orientated.

With exposure therapy working through gradual increase to the level of exposure to the fear, and therapy supporting the emotional and cognitive responses, you should begin to feel less anxious about your phobia, as the treatment progresses. The important factor here is that it is gradual - the steps are deliberate and manageable and therefore yield a greater success in the long run.

So, when it comes to, say, a phobia of flying, the repeated exposures may be something like this. First, you may imagine a plane. Then, you might follow up by looking at pictures of planes. Followed by videos of planes, perhaps stationary, then in flight and finally taking off or landing. From there you could go to a nearby airport just to watch planes take off, land and move around the tarmac. During the next session, you may enter the airport, sit in the waiting area, and then board a plane. Each step building towards finally taking a short flight on a plane.

Lots of these exposures can happen in a safe space, one which is controlled and even supported by the therapist at the same time. By taking your time to work through each step and develop a positive response to each step, you’ll become less anxious. Education about the process and phobias, supportive therapy and controlled exposures, this will lead towards facing or overcoming a phobia in a manageable way.

For those who have a phobia, it’s time to stop considering it to be embarrassing or something that is shame inducing. As humans, our bodies are very effective in generating the chemicals to induce fear at all kinds of things, regardless of their perceived rationality. And, since the human body can be incredibly resilient, our ability to adapt and overcome stresses and phobias is also very real. It might be something you congratulate yourself on one day.

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