Phobias: Seven Tips to Help Conquer Irrational Fears

by The Coping Counselors

Everyone experiences fear and insecurity. Phobias, however, are extreme or irrational fears that can significantly disrupt a person’s quality of life. Phobias lead to an avoidance of experiences, situations, or environments in a way that prevents a person from being able to enjoy occasions (such as visiting a friend) or can even prevent a required activity (such as traveling for work). Phobias can take a significant emotional toll on any individual who struggles with them.

Here are some tips to manage phobias:

1. Distinguish phobias from normal fears

It is important to distinguish between “normal” anxiety and a specific phobia. For example, becoming anxious on an airplane when some turbulence occurs can be a normal reaction to a scary situation. You understand that there is a certain (albeit small) level of risk to flying, and this can cause some normal anxiety. However, a fear of flying that is so severe that it prevents you from taking important flights may rise to the level of a specific phobia. For example, if you want to be there for a funeral of a loved one and are unable to convince yourself to get on a plane, you may have a phobia of flying that disrupts your life. Being able to distinguish the difference between a normal fear and a phobia can help you determine what will be necessary to change.

2. Avoid avoidance

When dealing with a phobia, it can be tempting (even likely!) to avoid the feared object/situation entirely. If you have a fear of spiders, for example, you may rigorously decide to avoid situations in which you would likely come in contact with spiders. This may seem like a simple way to prevent yourself from experiencing anxiety. However, avoiding the problem is only a comfort in the short-term and serves to exacerbate the anxiety in the long-term. This will also increase the power the phobia has over your life. Therefore, avoidance is not an encouraged method to manage a phobia. Facing the phobia can be challenging, but allowing yourself to gradually be exposed to the source of your phobia is an important part of moving on. You would do this slowly in a careful and controlled way until the level of fear subsides. The following tips focus on ways to use exposure and how to keep motivated through the journey.

3. Create a hierarchy

When beginning exposure strategies, it can be helpful to create a hierarchy of fears. If you have more than one phobia, it will be difficult to face exposure strategies for all of them at once. This list can help you to determine which phobias can be addressed in what order. To do this, number each specific phobia from 1-10. Starting with a moderate fear (of about 5-6) may be the best place to begin exposure techniques, though you can start with a number even lower if it helps you to accomplish your goal.

4. Consider imaginal exposure

For phobias that feel almost impossible to face directly, it might be helpful to consider starting with imaginal exposure. Imaginal exposure is a method of gradually reducing the intensity of the fear through imagined scenarios. This is often done with the support of a mental health professional. If you are strongly intimidated by the idea of directly facing phobias, imaginal exposure may be an appropriate place to start.

5. Challenge negative thoughts associated with your phobia

When exposing yourself to your phobia, your fear may cause you to experience unrealistic and catastrophic thoughts about your fears. For example, if your phobia is flying, you may experience thoughts before a flight, such as, “I’m not going to make it to my destination,” or, “I’m probably going to die.” Understandably, thoughts like this will exacerbate your fear. They may even lead you to a mindset of giving up the fight against the phobia. Therefore, it is important to improve your ability to challenge these thoughts whenever they occur. For example, when you notice a thought that tells you, “I’m probably going to die on this plane,” notice this thought immediately, write it down, and write down the more realistic response, as well. An example might say something like, “It is unlikely that I will experience any danger from this flight.” Consistently noticing and challenging these thoughts can help you to train your brain to think in more realistic ways, which can reduce your emotional response.

6. Practice relaxation exercises

Because it can be overwhelming and exhausting to fight your fears, it is critical to practice methods of anxiety reduction throughout the process. There are many different strategies that may be useful to help you calm your anxiety. One method is to practice a grounding technique known as 5-4-3-2-1. In this exercise, you can sit in a comfortable position and try to focus on 5 things you can see around you, 4 things you can feel, (for example, you may focus on becoming more aware of the feeling of your shoes on your feet) 3 things you can hear, (which you otherwise might tune out) 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste (this might mean taking a sip of water or chewing a piece of gum). This exercise can help you to become more focused on the present moment without letting fears of the future or pain from the past stick in your mind in the same way.

Another example of a relaxation exercise that can be beneficial is Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). PMR is a technique used to calm anxiety, reduce stress, ease body tension, and can even improve symptoms of insomnia. There are various scripts available online to help guide this relaxation strategy.

It is important to remember that different relaxation techniques work differently for different people. Consider doing some research and experimenting to find what relaxation strategies are best for you as you face any anxiety-inducing situations.

7. Keep yourself motivated by considering the costs of your phobia

Facing your phobias can often be a draining experience. At times, your anxiety or frustration may tempt you to give up the fight and return to avoidance. It may be helpful to create a list of ways in which your phobia(s) prevent you from living the life you want. What are some activities that are off-limits because of your phobia? Keep this list in mind for the inevitable moments when exposure strategies are challenging.

In conclusion:

Using exposure techniques to face your phobia is not an easy process. Your phobia has likely made the idea of intentionally exposing yourself an extremely unappealing concept! However, gradually exposing yourself to the fear is a very efficient, and surprisingly quick way to reduce or remove the control this phobia currently has over your life. Although it is scary to face these fears, isn’t it scarier to remain in a world ruled by your phobia? With determination, patience, and the practicing of calming techniques, you can create a more comfortable world for yourself.

Suggestion for further reading:

Bourne, E. J. The anxiety and phobia workbook. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, 2020.

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