I used to be afraid of it all: monsters under the bed, closets, mirrors, going to the bathroom at night... I followed these 5 steps to get over my childhood phobias, and it worked!
About my Phobias
When I was a little kid my dad always used to tuck me in. He would say "Goodnight Amanda. I love you. I hope you are able to sleep tonight because I saw the boogeyman in your closet earlier." And the next night it was "a full-moon and the werewolves are out". Every night there was a new scary thing for me to worry about. I used to laugh and say "NUH-UH DAD!" But it was a nervous laugh. As soon as the door was closed and I was alone I felt the fear of uncertainty...what if it was true? What if there were scary things in my room and under my bed? I started coming up with rules to try to keep myself safe. If I tuck my feet into the sheets they can't get me. If my closet is closed then it's safe. I suffered from an unfortunate combination of an active imagination and scary inputs into my childhood fear sector (thanks Dad). I developed rules to help me cope, but it didn't solve my fear and the phobias continued to persist into my adulthood.
I have had a lot of phobias in my life, but the things that scared me the most were: thinking that there was something under the bed, the closet, and looking at mirrors. (To be fair my mirror phobia came from watching scary movies - thanks Skeleton Key). All of my fears were manageable during the day, but extremely difficult for me at night. I would need to get out of bed for something or go to the bathroom, but I would be too scared to get up. Or if I did get up my heart would race a mile a minute and I would practically throw myself into bed to avoid the dreaded "under the bed zone".
So now that you know the level I was working with and my challenges I will tell you how I overcame those fears!
Step 1: Difference between Fear and Phobia
Having a phobia or a neurotic fear isn't about reality. I doesn't matter how statistically unlikely it is that a burglar would break into your house, hide out in the closet for hours until you go to sleep, and then pop-out when you decide to go to the bathroom. It doesn't matter that a crack in the cement could not possibly be related to physical bone structure of your mother's back. It doesn't matter that there is no science to prove that monsters exist and can create portals to the underside of your bed. None of the realities matter. You feel afraid when you feel afraid. The problem is recognizing when your fear response is valid and when it is irrational or out of touch with reality. That is really the difference between a fear and a phobia, and recognizing the difference is the first step.
Ask yourself these questions:
1) Does the thing that I am afraid of rely on superstition, magic, or some sort of other-worldly, paranormal, or unexplained activity to make sense?
2) Has the thing I am afraid of ever happened to myself or anyone I know?
3) Is the amount of fear I experience or the amount of time I spend thinking about the fear proportional to the likelihood that it will happen? Is there any literature or statistical analysis that backs up the fear?
4) Does it affect my life on a daily or weekly basis?
5) Does it make it difficult or prevent me from doing an activity?
I once had a friend who was afraid of sharks, which starts off seeming like a pretty rational fear. It is rational to have a fear of spiders, snakes, and other things that can bite us. However, he was so afraid of sharks that it prevented him from going to the beach at all. Even if he was 20-30 feet away from the water, he was afraid a shark would get him. It would have taken a very unexplained activity to launch a shark 30 feet from the water onto the beach at him directly so that it could bite him (Sharknado-style). So it was un-explainable how that would happen, it had never happened to him or anyone he knew before, he felt a very strong amount of fear that was out of touch with reality (a shark kills about one person every two years in the U.S.), and it prevented him from doing an activity. You don't have to hit all of the questions for it to be a phobia. For instance his fear did not affect him on a daily or weekly basis (well...hopefully).
Go over the list and see how your fear fits into those questions. Do you think your issue is a rational fear or a phobia?
Step 2: Understand the Cycle
The reason that you have a phobia is because you have developed a strong mental association between two things: an action/situation and a scary outcome. And that scary outcome is tied to a lot of emotional fear and distress. The fear triggers our fight-or-flight reflexes triggering an "I'm in danger" reaction from your body which then reinforces the phobia. So to break it down: you recognize a situation (I am about to step on a crack), you have an initial scary thought (break your mama's back), that thought triggers a reactionary thought (I don't want to hurt my mom), which triggers an emotional response (fear), and that fear triggers your body to react (heart rate increases, you change your step), and that overall reaction (stay away from this dangerous situation) is reinforced in your mind causing that mental association to deepen.
RECOGNIZE SITUATION --> INITIAL SCARY THOUGHT --> REACTIONARY SCARY THOUGHT --> EMOTIONAL FEAR RESPONSE --> PHYSICAL REACTION = INCREASED MENTAL ASSOCIATION
Please don't beat yourself up for having a phobia. It is a result of our brains doing exactly what they were trained to do: trying to protect ourselves from danger and remembering associations quickly. It is great when the association is valid. If someone pulls a knife out of their purse and we quickly turn away and run like hell - that's great! But what if you associate the purse itself with danger and you want to run away anytime a lady pulls out her cell phone? The problem is that the association is out of touch with reality and it is causing unnecessary stress.
Step 3: Self-Assurance
So enough about what causes phobias. Let's get on to the good stuff. What you can do about it. There are three things that you can do to get over a phobia. The first one is Self-Assurance. This step focuses on controlling your thought response to the the Initial Scary Thought. So when you think "break your mama's back" in the earlier example instead of responding with the thought "that would be awful. I would feel so badly if hurt my mom" you substitute an affirmative thought. Something like "stepping on this is not going to hurt anyone."
SITUATION --> INITIAL SCARY THOUGHT --> SELF-ASSURANCE THOUGHT
Sometimes it can be hard to go from a scary thought like "there is a monster under my bed" to "I am safe and secure." Sometimes you need to work your way up the chain. The next level up from "there is a monster under my bed" is "there could be a monster under my bed - I don't know." This thought still might trigger a fear response, but hopefully one that is less severe. From there you can work your way up to something more reassuring - maybe "there may be a monster under the bed, but even if there is I am going to be okay". The more you can consciously break the cycle before you trigger a fear response the less you will emotionally respond to the initial though when it comes up. After a while you will get really good at thinking the affirmation thought, and that will break the emotional part of the cycle even if you still have the initial thought.
Step 4: Make a Plan
This particular step was the most helpful for me when I was trying to get over my phobias. I used to get caught up in the thought loop of "It would be horrifying if this happened. I hope that doesn't happen." I would subconsciously say that to myself over and over when I pictured something scary happening. Those thoughts made me feel powerless and that feeling of powerlessness fueled my fear and left me feeling very vulnerable. So what did I do? I decided I was done hoping that things wouldn't happen and decided to make a plan for what I would do if it did. GAME-CHANGER! Now when I pictured something grabbing my ankles from under the bed I thought to myself "If something grabs my leg I am going to kick it in the freaking face and run away. It will be trapped under the bed and will be caught off-guard by my kicking." Instantly it was a lot less scary of a thought. I had a plan and I felt empowered. I even laughed at imagining the shock on the monsters face when I kicked it right in the kisser. If you happen to be afraid of sharks being launched at your face then maybe when you see it coming you can step over to the side or spike it away like a giant volleyball while it's eyes pop-open in disbelief! Make a serious plan, but adding or imagining some humorous features helps to make it less scary. So what kind of serious (but maybe slightly humorous) plan can you make in case your phobia comes true?
Step 5: Experience Replacement
This one goes a step further than Self-Assurance. Instead of thinking that nothing bad will happen you are going to prove that nothing bad will happen and replace negative thoughts with a positive experience. I understand that this is really difficult because it requires you to face your fears. I used to be afraid of looking at myself in the mirror, especially at night. I used to think "What if the reflection does something different than I do?" which caused me to respond with the thought "That would be horrible. I might be crazy, or there might be something evil after me." That made me feel very afraid. I used to purposely avoid looking in the mirror at night and I would be scared even to walk by it. I tried making a plan. I thought "If the mirror does something different than me then I will stand firmly in front of it and ask it why it is here." That plan was the best I could come up with, but just didn't give me the reassurance I needed.
So I started experience replacement by smiling at myself in front of the mirror during the day and thinking that I am a good person. Then at night I would try to look at myself in the mirror and tell myself the same thing. The more I practiced this the more comfortable I became looking at myself. Those positive experiences started to outweigh the negative thoughts until those negative thoughts became rare. Now I can look at myself and the thought "I am a good person" is the first thing that I hear, which helps me to feel good doing it.
I know that a lot of people are afraid of cats or dogs. Maybe there was a scary animal in your childhood or you were attacked once. In this case being afraid or cautious around animals is rational and comes from personal experience. However, it can cross the line and become a phobia if you are convinced that every animal is going to attack you, if it prevents you from going to parks or other peoples homes, or if you have extreme fear/paralysis when you do see an animal. This would be touching on Questions 3-5 from Step 1. The best thing you can do in this situation is experience replacement. If you know someone with an animal ask them if it is friendly to strangers see if they can come by your home (on a leash) and gradually work yourself up to a point where you can pet it. Use Self-Assurance and tell yourself that even if it bites you that you will be okay. Make a plan. Ask your friend that if the animal does bite at you that they will pull the animal away from you using the leash. You can combine all three steps: Self-Assurance, Make a Plan, and Experience Replacement into a powerful combo counter-attack!
Don't Use Avoidance Tactics
You will notice that I do not advocate for avoidance tactics in dealing with phobias. You can avoid the beach. You can remove all the mirrors out of your house. You can avoid stepping on cracks. But that is NOT a solution because it does not solve your fear. You would be cutting out the healing properties of Step 5: Experience Replacement. You will be reinforcing your fear and making it even worse when you do come into contact with those things. You may become obsessed with removing those things from your life and it could affect your health and well-being. It may eventually prevent you from doing something you would really like to do (what happens when your family member decides on a beach wedding?). I recommend to stick with the steps and take your time in getting over the phobia. Maybe it will always be there in the back of your mind, but I promise that practicing these steps will decrease it's power over you and make your everyday life easier.
Want to develop a plan to tackle your phobias? You can Schedule a Free Consultation about coaching. I would love to talk with you.
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Happiness & Wellbeing Life Coach
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