Fears & Phobias

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Picture going to a family outing at a friend’s house and they have a dog. You walk in with your family and their Cocker Spaniel starts barking and jumps on your leg in excitement. You look back at your children and they haven’t even entered the threshold. They’re standing about 15 feet behind you, peeking behind one of the side-walls trying to avoid the dog’s line of sight. Out of curiosity, the dog ventures outside and your kids scatter in every direction causing the dog to give chase. Your friend walks out and says, “Hey, I can put him in the backyard.” Your wife interjects, “Don’t do that, its freezing out there.” You try to gather your kids, who are now screaming and hiding behind you. You see their reaction, and respond, “is there any room we can put him in for now?”

Don’t tell them how they should feel, but allow them to vent and describe their fear.

If this is something you’ve experienced or witnessed before, you’d know that it can be pretty embarrassing. Having fears of objects, places, or situations is more common than one may think. A fear becomes a phobia when it alters and negatively affects your day-to-day functioning, causes disabling fear, and has you avoiding certain situations, which you realize is irrational. The perceived fears may or may not actually be dangerous. Yet they can cause severe physical symptoms of trembling, fear of dying, chest pain, sweating, feeling faint, and a few others.

The origin of a phobia is still not clear. There is evidence to show that it can be a combination of factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, environmental triggers, and learned behaviors. There are several forms of treatment ranging from medication to mental health counseling. Regardless of which you decide to pursue, there are steps you can take to help alleviate symptoms for more minor cases. Seek medical attention immediately if your phobia causes you to become paralyzed with anxiety, depression, or other serious symptoms.

Self-Help Tips:

  1. Talk about it. It’s true that people with phobias generally don’t want to talk about it because it creates more anxiety for them. However, talking helps normalize the condition and allows them to vent. Don’t tell them how they should feel, but allow them to vent and describe their fear. Talk about how long they’ve had it and how it started.
  2. How has their life been altered? What have they avoided and how have they compensated for it. Example; if someone has a phobia of a freeway overpasses, are they taking side roads even when traveling long distances?
  3. Don’t try to argue or force them to overcome their phobia(s). Regardless of what astonishing statistics you may provide, their fear is irrational. Therefore, even if there’s only a one in a billion chance of this happening to them, they’ll argue that the one chance could be them. Wait for them to become motivated and want to get better. Once they reach a point where they can no longer avoid it or it debilitates their functioning then they’ll be motivated to change.
  4. Don’t reinforce their fears or belittle them. Don’t joke around and try to scare someone with a phobia because you think it’s funny or somehow this will cause them to see their irrationality. It would only make the situation worse. Use a calm tone and let them know that you respect their phobia and that you can guide them when they are ready.
  5. What reaction does it trigger? Help them identify physical symptoms of stress — sweaty palms, and butterflies in their stomach, or others that may occur. Being aware of their reaction will give them more control over their behavior. Example; It’s possible that for a person who tends to run away when they see a dog, knowing that this triggers the dog’s instinct to give chase might help them to avoid that reaction in the future.
  6. Use relaxation techniques. People use a variety of relaxation techniques depending on what works for them. This can range from listening to music, exercising, counting backwards from a hundred, deep breathing, and relaxation imagery.
  7. Take small steps. Once they’re ready to face their fears, they can start with short periods of exposure. This does not mean that if they are afraid of mice, then you throw them in a room full of them so they get used to it (known as flooding). Instead, take very small steps and introduce them to non-living samples first, then gradual steps of exposure, depending on their comfort level.
  8. Be optimistic. Self-talk and constant reassurance that they can do this will help. Perhaps emulating someone else who is successful at handling that which they fear sometimes allows them to detach from the situation as is becomes more manageable. Let them read as much as they can about it and see what has worked for others.
  9. Demonstrate appropriate behavior. If your child is afraid of dogs and hears you talk poorly about them or sees that you’re afraid, then there’s a strong likelihood that they will do the same. Demonstrate appropriate behavior of approaching a dog, letting them sniff you, calmly petting them, etc.
  10. Know when to get professional help. Know your limitations and seek medical and/or mental health treatment if at any time you feel overwhelmed, unable to function, or the problem persists to where it debilitates your day-to-day functioning. Remember: If a phobia is not addressed properly, it can lead to a variety or medical problems including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, sleep disorders, and others.