Phobias: Face them? Or Escape them?
Can you think of a situation or object that makes you so frightened that you find yourself avoiding it at all costs, even though it doesn’t seem to bother most other people all that much? If so, you might have a phobia. A phobia is an exaggerated and irrational fear that leads us to try to stay away from a situation altogether or, if we can’t find a way out, to endure it despite intense anxiety. Studies show that phobias affect about 10% of the population, and it’s not uncommon to have multiple phobias at the same time.
But just to clarify: your fear of walking into a dark alley in a tough part of town is not a phobia. Nor is your unwillingness to reach down into a rattlesnake hole to retrieve a golf ball. Your strong desire to steer clear of either of those situations is neither irrational nor exaggerated. Intense anxiety about giving a toast at a friend’s wedding or a near paralyzing fear of getting into a crowded elevator, on the other hand? Probably a phobia.
Some people spend their whole lives taking inconvenient, often time-consuming, detours to save themselves from having to face a feared situation or object. If only they realized that those very detours they are taking are actually making their phobia stronger and more difficult to overcome. The decision of whether or not to treat a phobia depends on the extent to which a fear is interfering with everyday life.
Cognitive therapists look for 3 key behaviors that people engage in that contribute to developing a phobia or making an existing phobia worse:
- Escape. Quickly removing yourself from the situation at the first sign of discomfort or anxiety takes away the opportunity to disprove your fears and learn that the uncomfortable feelings you experienced would eventually have subsided on their own. And that you would’ve been ok.
- Avoidance. By avoiding the feared situation altogether, you become convinced that you have saved yourself from catastrophe. The problem is that, in so doing, you never give yourself a chance to learn that there was no danger in the first place and that you would’ve been just fine had you gone forward and endured the situation (and the uncomfortable physical sensations of anxiety) that you’d been so afraid of.
- Safety behaviors. A safety behavior is anything you tell yourself that you need to do to face your fear successfully. Examples of safety behaviors are making sure that another person is with you, keeping an Ativan pill in your pocket, and having on hand your lucky rabbit’s foot. If you come to believe that the only way you can endure your feared situation is to engage in a specific safety behavior, then your phobia will remain in full effect.
A major component of cognitive therapy in the treatment of a phobia is identifying and challenging the distorted thoughts that are at the root of your fear.
To conquer a phobia, start exposing yourself more directly to the very situation that triggers your irrational and excessive fear and then make a plan for eliminating the safety behaviors you’ve been relying on. Turns out these behaviors are not keeping you safe. They are keeping your phobia intact and preventing you from living a life with less anxiety.