Dr. Deb’s Mental Health Vitamin: Overcoming phobias
By Dr. Deb Wade
GCU Vice President, Counseling and Psychological Services
Are you afraid of snakes? How about elevators? How about heights?
Although it is perfectly natural to be fearful at times, if that fear becomes excessive and is out of proportion to the potential danger, you could be dealing with a phobia. The impact of a phobia can range from being annoying to being severely disabling.
Phobias cause people to worry about, dread, feel upset by and avoid the things or situations they fear because the physical sensations of fear can be so intense. In that way, the anticipation of the perceived event can actually interfere, sometimes to a great degree, with the natural enjoyment of living life.
So what is the difference between a FEAR and a PHOBIA?
Fear is, of course, one of the most basic of human emotions. It is “programmed” into the central nervous system and works like an instinct.
From infancy, we are equipped with survival instincts necessary to respond with fear when we sense danger. Fear protects us, makes us alert to pending danger and prepares us to deal with it.
Generally, fear stems from an actual danger and then vanishes as soon as the danger is gone by inciting you to take action to protect yourself. For example, if you see a car speeding down the road, your heart might begin to beat faster as you experience a sense of danger, and quickly you take action to move away from the car.
Phobias, however, are quite a different matter. With a phobia, the fear is significantly out of proportion to the potential danger and, ultimately, could interfere with normal activities.
Life is impacted, possibly to a very significant degree, by paralyzing the person, who can become avoidant of pleasurable activities because of the potential threat of danger. Ultimately, the presence of a phobia, though irrational at its core, is nevertheless life-impacting.
I once counseled a woman who, in the initial session, stated, “I have a severe fear of freeways, particularly the entrance or exit ramps when they curve. I am afraid I will fall off.”
Though she knew intellectually that many travel those roads and they do not fall off, the phobia was so intense that it had paralyzed her driving ability. She lived in a big metropolitan area rich with freeways; to counter her phobia, she would spend hours plotting out routes to take to a certain destination so that she could avoid the freeway at all costs. Sometimes, her days were spent driving countless hours, merely to avoid a freeway that would have shortened her trip significantly.
At the time of her arrival to the initial counseling session, she stated that she was prepared to give up driving altogether, which, of course, would have paralyzed her. This is a perfect example of an irrational fear that had become so intense that it was interfering with her natural enjoyment of life.
Because exposure therapy (getting exposed to the object that is feared until one discovers it is harmless) is a preferred method of overcoming phobias, at the end of the session I urged her to get on and off of a ramp of a freeway, then call the office to report her success once she got home. Though tentative, and because her desire to get better far outweighed the phobia itself, she did just that. We celebrated the victory, and in incremental steps, over time, she claimed SUCCESS!
You don’t have to live a fear-based life. If you feel as if you have a tendency to withdraw from life’s enjoyment, feel paralyzed with fear, please seek professional help. Enjoyment of life, perspective on danger and ultimate freedom is within reach and is yours to grab!