October 30, 2012

Here's the Skinny on Scary: The Facts about Phobias

(It's interesting how life has a way of redirecting things. Originally our segment was going to be more light hearted and talk about fear in the context of Halloween. Hurricane Sandy has changed all of that.)

The news of Hurricane Sandy certainly is seriously scaring a lot of people ... and it should.   Fear of dangerous storms is a good thing.  Fear helps us to avoid things that can harm us and do things to keep us safe. But what if a person got scared every time there was cloud in the sky or when it rained?  Some people suffer from irrational fears called phobias, and for them dealing with fear is an ongoing struggle.  Today we're going to  talk about phobias, what they are, where they come from and what can be done about them. 

About Fears and Phobia: The Basics                                                                                  Sometimes things can frighten us even when there is no actual threat. All of us have irrational fears.  We all have something that  we know is harmless but, despite our reasonable reassurances, it still bothers us.                                                                             -- When irrational fears become so persistent and strong that they actually start to interfere with our lives, i.e. we start to change our behavior to avoid the objects of our fears, it is called a phobia.  (BTW - Anxiety is a fear without an object and is a topic we will take up another time.)                                                                                                                           --Simple phobias are the most common type of emotional disorder.  Approximately 10% of the population suffer from them.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            --Phobias can be about anything but the most common are things like : spiders, snakes, needles, germs or situations like heights, closed spaces, public speaking, flying, illness and death.

What Causes Phobias ?

While a comprehensive explanation of where phobias come from is quite complicated and may involve genetic and even cultural factors, the most common cause for simple phobias is a traumatic event which creates an over generalized and irrational fear response to some element which is associated with the unpleasant experience.  For example, a dog bite by a nasty animal when one is little may lead to a fear of all dogs as an adult.

Overcoming phobias                                                                                                      Whether a phobia ever needs to be treated or not depends on the likelihood of coming into contact with the emotionally painful object or situation.  If I'm afraid of subways but live in a town that doesn't have one, it's no big deal.  If I'm afraid of dogs and live in my neighborhood, there is a problem. The good news is that treatment is very effective. The basic elements of therapy include relaxation, systematic desensitization to the toxic object and reconditioning and re-associating non fearful reflexive responses to the newly neutralized object or situationHere are some tips to help you deal with phobias.                                                                  

1. Remember: The key to overcoming an irrational fear is facing it. Unfortunately, overwhelming fear creates an avoidance response, i.e. the stimulus of the feared object is so strong it is intolerable. 

2. Facing a toxic stimulus (i.e. a situation or object) is not a single  event but is a gradual process which proceeds by doable baby steps. Each step much be tolerable. For example, someone who is afraid dogs might start out by looking up the word dog in the dictionary, then reading about it on line, then looking at a photo, a video, driving past a pet store, going into the pet store and seeing a real dog and so on until the s/he can actually pet the animal

3. Unlike other kinds of therapeutic interventions, the gradual process of desensitization is not a rational exercise, it is re-conditioning.  The process displaces an old conditioned reflex with a new, non fearful association.   You are not learning to think differently ; your emotional reactions  are being retrained. Without the fear response to the object or situation, there will no longer be a need to avoid the object or situation.    

Many will find these tips helpful.  If they don't do the trick and you find that your fears are really interfering with your life, there are many skilled professionals in the area who can help.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

The Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC prepared these remarks for Bridge Street  10 30 2012.   www.revmichaelheath.com/

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