Facing Fears But Still Afraid
For those fortunate individuals who do not suffer from anxiety or phobias, it may seem like a phobia would be an easy "fix." You simply face the fear and get over it. But for those of us who do suffer from phobias, we know that there are no easy fixes and we can’t just will ourselves to stop feeling fearful. And even when we face the very situation or object of our fear, there is no guarantee that this action will cure our phobia. We read a lot of textbook articles on anxiety disorders but what I wanted to present is the first hand experience of what it feels like to confront one’s fears. I think the patient perspective is critical to understand the process of coping with an anxiety disorder in the day to day.
I remember going to the neighborhood pool and watching a woman sitting cautiously on the edge of the pool in the shallow end. We began a conversation and at some point I casually asked if she was going to get in as it was a hot day. Then this woman told me how she was phobic of getting into the water. I told her that I was also fearful of the pool but only the deep end. She then told me the story of how she was afraid of swimming as a child. To "cure" her fear, a relative threw her into the pool and she felt like she was drowning. Since then, she never went into a pool but simply dangled her legs into the water while sitting on the edge. I could tell she wanted to get over her fear as she looked longingly at her grandchildren who were having fun playing in the water. She told me she wished that that relative had never done that to her as it made her phobia worse.
This was a story I could relate to from my own experience. I have always been afraid of going in the deep end of the pool. In high school we had swimming lessons. Despite the fact that I learned to tread water and swim a little I was still afraid. It was a humiliating moment when I was forced to jump into the deep end and I ended up panicking. The teacher actually had to get one of those long poles to get me out. Immersion into the thing I feared didn’t work for me just as it didn’t work for the woman I met at the pool. Yet so many people believe that this is how to cure a phobia.
My fear of heights has not been cured by people carrying me onto Ferris wheels or rollercoasters. I remember being terrified as a teen when I was in a group and one of the boys dragged me onto the biggest rollercoaster at the park. My friends honestly thought that this act would snap me out of feeling fearful and that I would just love rollercoaster rides after this. I didn’t and it actually made my fear more entrenched. Travelling by airplane has not gotten rid of my great anxiety over flying. I have had a lot of recent practice in public speaking and my fear is still there. One of my relatives lectures for a living. She has done this for decades and does it well. But before each talk, she goes into the bathroom and vomits a little. She once told me that while she was in the bathroom a famous writer of children’s literature was also there and puking before her speech. Somehow my relative’s story validates my own hard earned wisdom that simple immersion into the situation we fear is not a cure for phobias.
So where are we getting this idea that literally pushing someone off the deep end will cure them of their fear?
I think some of it comes from the non-phobic person’s wish to make a phobia or anxiety symptoms rational. In researching "exposure therapy" for this post I came across a quote from a psychiatrist which pretty much said that as long as the phobic person avoids exposure to the thing they fear, they have no way of knowing that it can’t hurt them. This seems logical right? You do the thing you are afraid of and you live through it and you are supposed to be less fearful knowing that the object of your fear has not hurt you. But it hasn’t worked this way for me.
In addition, every time I am on a plane with my white knuckles gripping my arm rest, some well intentioned person will tell me the statistics of how safe flying is and how people do it every day. "Nothing to be afraid of," they will say confidently. As if these statements are going to somehow make me snap out of it and say, "Oh yeah, you are right. Silly illogical me. I think I will just not be afraid anymore." My logical mind is well equipped to read statistics and know that I am more likely to die in a car than a plane but somehow these facts do not comfort me. You know why? Because phobias are not logical. And one cannot assume that logic will cure them.
Having said all of this, there is research to show that exposure therapy can be effective in treating phobias. You can read about exposure therapy from these articles:
Basically exposure therapy does involve exposing the individual to the situation or object that the person fears. However, there are some factors which make this type of therapy very different than someone just throwing you into the deep end of the pool. One is that you are hopefully working with a skilled therapist who can carefully guide you towards overcoming your fear without totally freaking you out in the process. The other element which is so important here is that you learn calming techniques to help you reduce your anxiety and fear.
Within the realm of exposure based treatments there is the technique called flooding where you are placed into the feared situation and asked to remain there until the anxiety subsides. As with any therapeutic strategy, there are some people who may respond well to this but I sure wouldn’t want to do it. I think it greatly depends on the individual, the therapist, and the specific phobia as to how successful such a treatment would be but I could imagine in some cases that it could backfire.
The type of exposure therapy that I think holds the most promise for reducing anxiety is systematic desensitization. I have a lot of personal experience with this method in helping my son with autism to overcome some of his fears and phobias. I have written about our experience in my post, Systematic Desensitization in Action. This technique takes a slow pace of gradually exposing the person to the fearful situation while coaching them on how to remain calm. I feel it is a much more gentle and effective strategy than others.
The reason I wrote this post is to differentiate between therapy and well intentioned but potentially harmful strategies of friends and relatives to cure you of your phobia. Don’t push someone into the deep end if they are afraid of water. Don’t lecture the fearful flyer about how statistics show that flying is safe. Don’t assume that just because a person has been exposed to the situation they fear, that they are now suddenly over it. It really doesn’t work that way. There is pride in facing one’s fear and living through it. I feel proud of myself every time I get on a plane or speak in public. But it doesn’t mean that my anxiety has disappeared. Living with anxiety and phobias is hard. There are no miracle cures or simple solutions. My definition of success is that you learn to cope and manage the fear enough to get on that plane or wade in the deep end of the pool. And when you do, we want to hear about it
I have said this before and I will say it again. We like to hear from our members. That means YOU! Please do share your stories and experiences with us. You never know when what you say can help someone else.