Recently, I participated in a Twitter chat with Dr. Richard Besser from ABC News in which we discussed what makes a phobia and the most effective treatments for them. The discussion was a pretty simluating one, in part because there is a frighteningly long list of phobias! Anyway, at one point in the chat we discussed Lizzy Noperent's recent article which spices things up by putting names freshly hatched phobias—as in, phobias that can only exist in our current time, when technology, the Internet and social media have changed our lives to the extent that they have. Do you think anybody in the 70s ever suffered from Nomophobia (fear of being without one's cell phone) or Ipovlopsychophobia (fear of appearing in a selfie)? I doubt it.
What makes a phobia more than just a fear? Well, the standard dictionary definition tells us that it's "an exaggerated usually inexplicable and illogical fear of a particular object, class of objects, or situation". In my professional judgement, however, there's another set of critera that offers a more useful working shorthand to identify a true phobia. Ready? Here it is: A phobia is a fear of a specific thing or situation that causes marked impairment in functioning or marked distress.
So: what should you do if you have a phobia?
First, you should tell yourself that your condtion is completely understandable. There's nothing "inexplicable" about them—most phobias have some sort of underlying cause, which mean that they can be explained and understood. It's my own view that phobias—and all the anxieties which accompany them--are evolutionarily programed. This means it's not your fault. After all, we inherited the abilty to fear specific things from our ancestors who depended upon these fears to teach them how to survive in an inhospitable world.
Anxiety and fear are evolutionary!
Second, you should know that there are effective treaments for phobias. It's useful to think of phobias as a learned response to a particular stimuli (thing or situation). We associate that neutral thing, say a dog, a clown, or the thought of going outdoors, with immediate fear. So in order to overcome your phobia, you need to slowly expose (get close to) the thing you fear! Gradually, of course. Don't worrry—this is done step by step, over time, while you learn to relax. This kind of treatment is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
For example, let's say you're afraid of flying—a fairly common fear, and one which would put you in some pretty illustrious company, by the way. How would you use exposure therapy to weaken and eventually move past this phobia?
Well, you would first imagine being on a plane, which you would then follow up by looking at pictures of planes, then videos of planes. From there you would go to a nearby airport just to watch planes take off, and during the next session sit in the waiting area, and then on the plane, and then--at last--take a short plane trip. Throughout these sessions, you would engage in treatment regarding your thoughts and attitudes towards planes and the act of flying, all of which would include some work on changing your thoughts to be more adaptive.
All this work to overcome your phobia is something to be proud of—but the journey can be difficult. With that in mind, here are some tips which can help you find your way through the process:
1. Congratulate yourself for facing your fears! Difficult tasks are accomplished more quickly with positive reinforcement and affirmation. So please give yourself some! Not everyone takes a step towards conquering their fears.
2. Write down your list of reasons (motivations) for overcoming your phobias. If you name the specific reasons that you are confronting your fears (e.g., for your kids) you will be more likely to stick with the hard work you will need to do to battle your phobia.
3. Find a well trained Cognitive Behavioral Therapist. If you can't find one, try to make a list of the things you are afraid of and confront them slowly, step by step, starting with the easiest item on the list. It usually helps to do a relaxation technique before and sometimes during the process of facing your fears.
4. Remember that setbacks and relapses are all part of the process. Just as long as you get back on the plan, you are well on your way to conquering your fears.
You can work to rid yourself of any shame you have about having a phobia—to be overwhelmingly afraid of something. The indisputable evolutionary truth is that the human body, among other things, a carbon-based fear-producing machine. But the fact that you are a human being means that all along, you also have the power to vanquish those fears—and this is also an indisputable evolutionary truth. Good luck!
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