If you suffer from a phobia, you are probably all too familiar with the common phrases used by friends and family who are trying to help you deal with it. "Suck it up." "Be a man." "Get over it." Some people believe that offering statistics can help you face your fear. "You are X number of times more likely to get struck by lightning/run over by a speeding bus/hit by a baseball than you are to die of (whatever your fear is)."
Although these words of wisdom can motivate and encourage those who are experiencing everyday nerves, they can actually be paralyzing to those suffering with legitimate phobias. You already know that your fear is irrational and being reminded of its irrationality can, paradoxically, make the fear that much stronger.
Can I Just "Get Over It?"
It is almost always possible to confront a feared situation. How you react to that confrontation, however, depends on many factors. A severe, deep-rooted and long-lasting phobia is much more difficult to confront than a mild one that has recently developed. When you are already nervous or stressed out, confronting a phobia is more difficult than it is when you are calm and relaxed. Confronting multiple triggers, such as crowds and loud noises, is harder than dealing with a single triggering situation.
What Happens If I Just Do It?
Reactions to phobias are as widely disparate as the things that trigger them. Some people run away. Others cry. Some people become angry and hostile. Some freeze in place. Think about the times that you have accidentally run into a situation that triggered your phobia. Intentionally placing yourself into the feared situation will likely trigger a similar reaction. Some people find that when they intentionally confront their triggers, the sense of control lessens their reactions, but this is by no means universal.
Is Confronting My Phobia Dangerous?
Flooding is a mental health technique in which a person who suffers from a phobia is immersed in a triggering situation. However, the technique is used by trained mental health professionals, often in conjunction with other techniques such as breathing and visualization exercises. Attempting to perform flooding on your own may lead to panic, uncontrollable behavior and even worsening of the phobia.
In addition, some phobic reactions can lead to potentially dangerous behaviors. If your tendency is to run away from a trigger, attempting to confront a fear of heights by perching on a roof ledge could end tragically. If you tend to lash out physically when confined, confronting your claustrophobia at a densely packed event could cause trouble.
Is It a Phobia or Just a Fear?
It can be tough to tell the difference between a fear and a phobia. If your fear causes more than a mild "butterflies in the stomach" reaction, your fear may be a phobia. If you generally find yourself avoiding a particular situation or obsessing about an upcoming confrontation, or if you display dramatic reactions such as running away, shaking or crying, it is best to assume that you may have more than a simple fear.
How Should I Treat a Phobia?
Consult with your family doctor or a trained mental health professional about any fear that seems severe or affects your life. Many phobias can be treated in just a few sessions using a combination of therapy techniques and, possibly, medications. You may learn coping techniques and strategies, confront the root of your fear, or work through a process known as systematic desensitization in which you are gradually exposed to the object of your fear.
Although it is tempting to try to work through a phobia on your own, professional guidance can increase your chances for success while ensuring that you do not accidentally make things worse in the process. The next time a well-meaning friend tells you to "get over it," tell him or her that you are working through your fears in a responsible way.Sources:
American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Tomlinson, Nicole. In Depth: Psychology. "Fear Factors." CBC News. October 31, 2007. February 23, 2010. http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/psychology/fear.html