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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fears and Phobias

Without some good, sensible fears, we would live very short and perilous lives. Healthy fears keep us from engaging in dangerous and foolish behaviors that could cause tons of grief.

That’s why we wash our hands after using the bath room, stop and look both ways before crossing a busy street, and make sure the ladder is secure before using it to clean out the gutters on the house.

But phobias, irrational fears that get in the way of normal activities most people do as a matter of course, are anything but helpful.

For example, if we panic at the thought of being in large crowds, break into a sweat traveling over high bridges, or have an anxiety attack thinking about using an elevator, we’re experiencing distress for no good reason. And since our impulse is to always avoid whatever causes us emotional discomfort, we may use a lot of time and energy trying to accommodate our phobias.

The good news is that these unwelcome and non-useful fears can be overcome. And the process is really very simple, though simple and easy are not the same thing.

I sometimes ask my anxious clients to imagine needing to overcome a fear of non-poisonous snakes. What if the only job they could get would be at a pet shop where they would be expected to take care of snakes and to show customers how to handle and take care of them?

We usually agree to a step by step approach. First stand close to a caged snake and observe it carefully and at length, then engage in some mental rehearsal, imagining touching it while repeatedly reassuring ourselves this is absolutely safe. Another step might be to have someone else hold a snake in our presence, then begin to hold the tail end of the reptile while a coworker holds the head end. Later we could reverse that, until we could hold one on our own with someone else present. Finally, we would practice doing it alone, repeatedly, until we would no longer have the slightest qualms about handling a snake.

These are simple steps that are guaranteed to work. In fact, all of us have overcome phobia after phobia in just that way, one baby step at time. Some examples might include an irrational fear of being alone in the dark, of giving an oral report in a class, of driving a car on a busy highway, or of taking on some new assignment at work.

The reason we are successful in accomplishing these is because we practice doing the opposite of what our instincts tell us to do. In other words, we move toward the object of our fears, in incremental steps, rather than away from them in order to avoid them. Every time we move just beyond our normal comfort zone, we expand it, and thus become able to do more of the things that other good, mature adults do all the time.

In other words, we begin to live by our faith instead of our phobias.
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