Figuring out what not to say to someone with a phobia can be tricky. Phobias are, by definition, irrational. They can cause otherwise calm and even-tempered people to panic, scream, freeze in place, or run away. Phobia sufferers realize that their fear is out of proportion to reality, but are unable to overcome it. To friends, family and onlookers, a phobic reaction can be frightening or even appear "crazy," especially if the phobia is of something that seems like no big deal, such as an escalator. If you know someone with a phobia, knowing what not to say is at least as important as knowing what to say.
Get Over It (Suck It Up, etc.)
These statements suggest that the phobic reaction is within the sufferer's control. Most people with phobias realize that the fear is silly, and may have spent years trying to "get over it." These statements can make the phobia sufferer feel defensive or embarrassed, and do little towards actually helping the person overcome the phobia.
These statements suggest that you are embarrassed by the person with the phobia. Many people with phobias are acutely aware that their reactions cause a scene, but are unable to control them. Telling the person to be quiet reminds her that she is not behaving in a socially acceptable way and can cause further panic as she fights to regain control.
Many people with phobias worry that they might be crazy. Telling a phobia sufferer that he is, in fact, crazy is inaccurate at best and potentially damaging at worst. A phobia is simply an irrational fear, and has nothing to do with the sufferer's overall mental status.
You're a Wimp (Sissy, Baby, etc.)
It is natural for friends and relatives to issue challenges to one another, and to good-naturedly tease each other for backing down from those challenges. However, a phobia adds another dimension to the situation. Someone with a legitimate fear of heights simply cannot accept a challenge to race up a ladder. It is unreasonable to expect someone with a phobia of water to accept a swimming challenge. Although you may be disappointed, avoid insulting the person.
In the real world, we tend to live our lives by the odds. Nothing is entirely safe, so we find the level of risk with which we are comfortable. We soothe ourselves by comparing the number of plane crashes per year to the number of flights per year, or looking up the safety record of an amusement park ride. However, phobias are not rational. It doesn't matter how small the chance for harm may be. Quoting statistics is useless and may make the sufferer feel even worse.
If You Loved Me, You Would…
It can be frustrating and disappointing when a loved one's phobia prevents her from sharing in an activity that you enjoy. If you love roller coasters, you may be upset if your spouse chooses to sit on a bench while you ride. If you are an avid hiker, you might be disappointed to learn that your girlfriend is afraid of leaves. Emotional blackmail, however, can cause your loved one to feel guilty about something that she cannot control.
Coping with a loved one's phobia is never easy, but it is important to remain supportive. Badgering or belittling only leads to hurt feelings, anger and additional panic.
American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
NHS: Primary Mental Health Service. Helping someone else overcome a phobia. http://www.pmhtglos.org.uk/pmht244332.html