Fear is a good thing. It's normal, and most of the time we deal with it — and the situation that caused it — and get on with our lives. But a paralyzing, unreasonable fear of something that isn't really dangerous is not normal. That kind of fear is phobic. And it can cause extreme ongoing stress and disrupt your life in many ways.
The things we fear
There are dozens of phobias. Actually, the variety of just the common ones is astonishing, including public speaking or other social situations, open or closed-in spaces, clowns, flying, spiders, needles, snakes, heights and germs. And there are plenty of less common phobias, such as the fear of puppets, ghosts, dentists and riding in a car.
It's a phobia when...
Despite the wide range of phobic fears, there are some symptoms common to all phobias, including:
- If you get anxious just thinking about your fear
- If you feel your anxiety is out of control; you feel panicked
- If you feel you have to do whatever you can to avoid the source of your fear
- If you sweat, your heart races, you have trouble breathing, you experience tremours or dizziness when facing your fear
And, especially, if you can't function normally
Fighting your fears
Not every phobia is extreme or needs to be treated — clowns, snakes and ghosts can generally be avoided in your daily routine. But if your phobia impairs your ability to live normally, you should take steps to begin fighting a phobia. And you don't have to do it alone. Get trusted family members and friends to help you do the following:
- Identify your real fear. If you're paralyzed at the thought of going for a routine blood test, for example, try to identify if it's fear of the needle or the blood that's causing your distress. This will help you with the next steps.
- Learn as much about your fear as possible. Often phobias are based on misinformation; for example, thinking a needle will hit bone and cause an infection. Getting the right information will prepare you for seeing how irrational your fear may be.
Repeatedly expose yourself to your fear in a controlled way. Start small and gradually increase your exposure. If, for example, your biggest fear is going to the dentist, then enlist the help of a trusted friend and simply walk into the dentist's office and back out. The next time, try walking in and out alone. Then try sitting in the waiting room. When you're finally ready to make an appointment, go for a check-up and then a simple tooth cleaning. By taking things in small steps, you will begin to understand that the experience is not harmful, merely unpleasant.
- Learn relaxation techniques, both mental and physical. Use these techniques before, during and after exposure exercises to help keep calm.
- Expect and accept relapses. Once you feel you have your phobia under control, don't be alarmed if a stressful situation triggers your fear to return. This isn't a sign of failure; however, you should try more exposure exercises.
- Reward yourself. When it comes to overcoming a phobia, even little steps mean a lot. Think of a reward that will give you a sense of a job well done.
- Practice makes perfect. Phobias can be a lifelong struggle so practice your coping skills — even if you think your phobia is under control.
All of these steps will help your brain adjust to how you respond to things you fear and eventually your fear may be overcome. It's just a matter of getting started and sticking with it.
Want more information and support? Search “phobia” in Find Support for organizations in your area.