For most of humankind’s journey through the ages, daily life was fraught with genuine perils and terror of the unknown. Thus, it’s only natural that we experience instinctively fearful reactions to certain stimuli in the modern world, even when such fear is irrational. Problems occur when an illogical fear becomes extreme and causes a change of general behavior. Such fears are known as phobias, and identifying their presence is the first step toward overcoming them.
When Fear Becomes Phobia
Practically everyone has some innate fear of certain objects or occurrences that are actually quite benign. Feeling a cold shiver at the sight of a common house-spider or leaping with a scream upon seeing a harmless garter snake are common examples of fearful reactions to objects that pose no real threat. In such cases the fear tends to subside and become manageable within moments of the initial visual shock as we rationalize our reaction.
Phobias cause sufferers to drastically alter their behavior and decision-making to avoid any potential confrontation with the object or situation they fear. In the event that a confrontation actually occurs, the reaction is intense and overwhelming and persists even after the source is removed. By taking note of our fears and considering our reactions to them, we can determine whether our reactions are normal or merit attention.
In many cases it may possible to consistently avoid the source of a phobia without seriously compromising one’s lifestyle, but doing so can be risky and even dangerous. Someone with a phobia of fire, for example, may be able to compensate by simply standing far away from fireplaces and avoiding camping trips. However, a simple kitchen fire may quickly grow into an uncontrollable blaze if the overwhelming phobic response renders the victim powerless to extinguish it.
Examples of phobia avoidance behavior include:
- Driving miles out of your way each day to avoid any bridges or tunnels
- Passing up a lucrative promotion because it involves public speaking
- Climbing dozens of flights of stairs to avoid taking the elevator
- Lying, manipulating or hiding to get out of difficult social situations
- Missing the funeral of a loved one when flying would be the only way to arrive in time
Facing Fear Itself
Once you’ve identified the need for treatment, confronting the source of your fear is the only way to truly overcome your phobia. Though the mere thought of encountering that which terrifies us can be enough to cause stress and discomfort, treatment of a phobia is typically conducted as gradually as possible to mitigate the intensity of reactions.
The most successful treatments employ a comprehensive strategy for phasing in contact with the phobia’s source. This strategy is bolstered by the use of relaxation techniques and positive thinking exercises that provide tools for resisting and diminishing the phobic reaction.
The formation of a treatment strategy can be broken down into four logical parts:
- Taking an inventory of your fears. Focus on the source of your phobia and note any aspects that cause discomfort and fear. Because many phobias contain numerous elements that contribute to the overall fearful reaction, it is important to identify such elements and confront them all
- Use strategy to arrange your list. Use the items compiled when analyzing your fears to create a plan that begins with facing the least frightening elements of your phobia. Add steps in increasing order of intensity until completing the list with your ultimate goal of successfully and consistently overcoming the phobia. The more gradual the steps are, the easier it will be to add confidence and minimize extreme reactions.
- Put your plan into action. With well-planned steps in place, it’s time to begin gradually confronting your fear. While earlier steps may be relatively easy to complete, others may require patience and several attempts to master. It is important to stay focused and not allow yourself to be discouraged when encountering the more daunting elements of your phobia.
- Practice makes perfect. Whether progress is slow and tentative or you’ve successfully completed each step in your plan, it is vital that you continue to confront your phobia to gain the comfort necessary to fully overcome it. Conquering a phobia is like a wrestling match – You may be able to pin down your fears, but you must stay on top of them until they’re down for the count.
Mind Over Matter
A variety of relaxation techniques can be used throughout the process to ease the symptoms of a phobic response. Deep breathing exercises are an effective means of countering feelings of panic and anxiety and can be performed as often as needed throughout the confrontation process. When the beginnings of a phobic response are felt, stopping to take deep, controlled breaths and focus on relaxation can diffuse the fear’s intensity, allowing you to stay with the treatment and resist giving in.
Techniques to defeat negative thinking are also essential weapons for conquering phobias. The detrimental thinking phobias can inspire include self-fulfilling prophecies of failure, overgeneralizations, and forecasting catastrophe without cause. Developing the ability to rationalize these negative thoughts helps keep fear in perspective and builds confidence in your ability to successfully confront it.
While it’s perfectly natural to experience irrational fears, phobias cause sufferers to make undesirable sacrifices to their quality of life and can even lead to real danger if left untreated.
Do you have any fears that seem impossible to confront? Have you ever made a decision or changed your normal behavior to avoid contact with a source of irrational fear? If phobias are affecting your life, build a strategy for confronting your fears and use the power of relaxation and positivity to give yourself the best tools for conquering them. After all, there’s nothing to fear but fear itself.
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Guest author John Davidson writes from personal experience. He recently shared his thoughts on overcoming your fear of needles in this blog post. This was just one of the phobias John has had to face. Now, he is determined to help others overcome their fear of needles and anything else they may be afraid of.