We all have things, people, places or animals that make us a little anxious, nervous or just uncomfortable. I find that being high up is really nerve racking and causes me to show the classic signs of anxiety, beating heart, sweaty palms and butterflies in the stomach but, eventually I can do what I need to do.
This sounds a bit like a phobia but it isn’t.
When we have a phobia, we are overwhelmed and even debilitated by the fear. Phobias are really pronounced and massively exaggerated fears where the sense of danger is completely unrealistic. If it becomes severe enough we become unable to face the possibility of meeting up with the cause of our phobia by rearranging and restricting our lives to ensure we do not have to face that phobia. For some of us it can become really debilitating.
Phobias are one of the many anxiety disorders which some of us can be ok until we meet up with the subject of our phobia. While some of us will get anxious, if even we even think about the phobia, we will show much more exaggerated signs of anxiety, we are suffering from the anticipation anxiety of thinking about a phobia.
There are two types of phobia. One is a simple phobia centred around a particular object, animal, situation or activity. such as animals, sexual diseases, bodily functions (being sick is the most common), environments (heights etc), situations (doctor appointments). Then there are complex phobias like social phobia and agoraphobia. These are really debilitating and often lead to avoiding public transport, crowded places, being alone or being with people, public speaking and even going to work in certain situations (shop or office).
So where do phobias come from? Most phobias are developed in childhood; however, they can also develop when we are adults and these are the more complex phobias. There are several reasons why a phobia can develop.
Most phobias we develop are around certain objects, situations, or animals. For instance, many people like me are afraid of heights, whereas others are afraid of blood, enclosed spaces, rats or spiders. Some people believe, therefore, we have this genetically programmed into our brains as it is a response back to when we were in much more danger than we are now. So, at one point in history, if we were exposed to rats we could catch the plague.
We can learn a phobia early in life, so if a child fell from a height they can learn that all heights are dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. We can also learn from others such as if someone close to us when we are growing up has a fear of phobia we will take that on board as our reality too and develop our own phobia.
If we have a phobia it is most likely that we will be very risk averse and overestimate the danger of any situation where we will encounter our phobia. This then develops a vicious circle as our over estimation feeds our wish to avoid, at all costs, that situation and we then just continue to increase our anticipatory anxiety about it, and the phobia gets bigger. If we must face our phobia, we develop some behaviours that have a ritualistic element and make us feel safe, like only getting on the train when it’s quiet (at a specific time) or with a friend (only one friend can do this role) to hold on to. So, we never face our phobia but we build ways to avoid it and again it just gets more control of our lives. Of course, the more we dodge the phobia the greater the relief, so the more we dodge the phobia and so it goes on.
Realistically if we have a phobia we overestimate the danger and underestimate our ability to cope with our anxiety. This destructive thought cycle will keep us wrapped up in the phobia until we get some help.
It is difficult to break free from a phobia without professional help. CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) is known to help us change our destructive thought processes.
There are a few things we can do to help ourselves –
- Get real with your thoughts – is this realistically going to happen if I do ….? What is actually the worst thing that can happen? Am I really going to pass out if I…?
- Check your thoughts – are you creating catastrophes? Are you looking in to a crystal ball and predicting? Are you based your thoughts on one incident?
- Challenge your thoughts – What evidence contradicts your thoughts? If the situation did happen what could you do? What would you tell your friend to do in this situation?
- What situations are you avoiding and what safety measures do you use? What makes the situation worse and what makes it better?
- Learn some mindfulness or breathing techniques that will calm you down.
Elaine Bond Counselling Services
Tel: 0779 152 951