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Phobias can be undone when you face them

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No one wakes up in the morning hoping to be deathly and irrationally afraid of common objects or activities that seemingly everyone else has no trouble with, but for 9.1% of Americans, they face debilitating fear of public spaces (agoraphobia), spiders (arachnophobia), confined spaces (claustrophobia) and many others. Symptoms of a phobia resemble that of a panic attack wherein a person feels like they are hyperventilating, have nausea, overwhelmed by a sense of doom, and feel dizzy. A phobia can feel like a prison sentence, in which a person is restricted to the spaces where they feel safe, meaning they may never leave their home or room. This can lead to social isolation, which only worsens the condition. For those who suffer from one or more phobias, know that there is hope. There are ways to defeat phobias. Below are 8 steps you can take to dismantle your phobia(s).

Recognition: The first step to overcoming a phobia is recognizing that the phobia itself is irrational. In the case of a person having experienced a traumatic event, an object may be mistakenly associated with the traumatic experience. For example, a drunk driver blows through a stop sign and crashes into a person’s car. Thereafter, the person who was hit has a phobia of stop signs. Certainly, this is an irrational misattribution— the stop sign did not cause the person’s trauma. It was the drunk driver.

However, there are many cases where a person develops a phobia outside of any traumatic event. Researchers aren’t entirely sure what causes phobias in this regard, but they believe it is the interaction of several different factors, such as genes, brain chemistry, behavior patterns and environmental conditions. Regardless of the cause, a phobia is marked by its irrational fear of an object, situation, person or groups of people.

What is your phobia?

Know your triggers

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Source: Know your triggers

Triggers: Triggers are thoughts, situations or even feelings that lead to phobic fear responses. For example, if a person has a fear of spiders, merely thinking about spiders would cause a panic attack. If a person comes across a spider in their bathroom, they may flee the room in mortal fear. Or, if the person starts feeling nervous, they may believe it’s because a spider is near them, again, causing a panicked reaction. A therapist will help the client identify what are their most common triggers.

What are your triggers?

Biofeedback: When a therapist starts working with a client who suffers from a phobia, the first step is to help that client understand their physiological reaction when triggered. A therapists will ask their client what they sense is taking place in their body. The client may report having elevated blood pressure, increased perspiration, a feeling of panic, tightness in their chest, among other symptoms. This is valuable information for the client. They can now better identify when they are triggered by understanding their physiological reaction to their phobia. It is not only the mind that reacts when triggered; the body responds as well.

How does your body react when triggered?

Understanding the Sequence: When the client becomes acquainted with how their body reacts to triggers, they can better understand their emotional response. The sequence plays out like this:

  1. Trigger 
  2. Physiological response
  3. Emotional response
  4. Unhealthy response
  5. Negative outcome.

Understanding this sequence helps the client engage in the process of change. They can then apply interventions to themselves at each stage of the sequence to achieve a better outcome like this:

  1. Trigger
  2. Physiological response
  3. Emotional response
  4. Healthy response
  5. Positive outcome.

Over time, the client will experience a lessening of physiological and emotional responses to triggers as they learn to effectively respond to them.

What emotions come up for you when triggered?

How do you cope when triggered?

Can you envision a healthier way of coping when triggered?

Cognitive Shift: At the first leg of the sequence, the trigger, a therapist can help a client recognize the irrationality of their phobia. There is nothing inherently dangerous about a stop sign, the color blue or confined spaces. Challenging the irrationality of these beliefs creates space for new, more rational beliefs to emerge; namely, the object of the phobia is not actually dangerous or threatening. 

How is your phobia irrational?

Self-Soothing: At the second leg of the sequence, the physiological response, the client can apply self-soothing skills. Self-soothing is a mindfulness practice that allows you to ground and center yourself, so that your emotions don’t careen out of control. The idea is to not think your way out of the distressing situation, but simply soothe the intense physiological reaction.

Are you able to use self-soothing skills when triggered?

Emotional Regulation: At the third leg of the sequence, the emotional response, you can then apply skills that help you process what you are feeling, regulate those feelings and find resolution.

Can you name what you are feeling and why?

Exposure: Once a client recognizes the sequence and learns various skills to intervene on themselves at each stage of the sequence, the client is ready to be challenged. The therapist will systematically expose the client to triggering situations, beginning with the least panic-inducing situation, then progressing to the greatest panic-inducing situation.

For example, the therapist will start off by having a client imagine spiders and then coach them as they use skills to regulate their panic-response. When they’ve learned to manage that low panic-inducing situation effectively, then the therapist will expose them to a more challenging scenario like looking at pictures of spiders. As the client becomes stronger and more effective at using their skills to regulate their fear, they will be able to confront their fear in any setting.

Can you repeatedly expose yourself to the trigger?

Hopefully, this article given you an understanding of how to dismantle your phobia. As you’ve read, it is advisable that you address a phobia with the help of a therapist. Primarily because those who suffer from phobias desperately want to avoid all triggers, which is a surefire way to perpetuate the phobia. A therapist can help their client recognize their phobia, uncover its irrationality, teach them self-soothing skills, and compassionately keep them accountable when it comes to repeatedly exposing themselves to the phobic trigger and using the skills. 

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