I’m sure that we all have met someone who was deathly afraid of snakes. Or maybe it was spiders. Or bats, blood, clowns, the dentist, flying, heights, the weather, math, the dark, or even other people.

When it comes to fear, there seems to be a phobia for almost everything. If you or someone you know has an extreme reaction to a particular thing, is there anything that can be done to help? Let’s look at what current treatment says.

First, let’s set some boundaries about what we are talking about when it comes to a phobia. This isn’t something that you just dislike or feel uncomfortable around. No, a phobia is an extreme feeling of fear or anxiety toward something that prevents a person from doing what most people would considered normal.

For example, people with the phobia of flying would make sure that all of their trips can be done in a car. People with a flying phobia would just resign themselves that there are certain places in the world they will never visit.

Phobias are different than strong dislike, and these two things shouldn’t be mixed up. When I was a picky child, I didn’t have phobia toward my mom’s meatloaf; I just didn’t like it!

Where do phobias come from? Well, no one exactly knows. Sometimes there is a logical starting point to a phobia, such as a person who was bitten by a dog as a young child and now is afraid of dogs. Some phobias could be nature — simply the result of a person’s DNA. Some could be due to nurture — the residual from being raised a particular way.

What is more important than the reason for the development of a phobia, though, is how to help someone deal with it.

In working with people who struggle with particular phobias, one of the first questions they’ll ask is, “Why?” — “Why do I start freaking out when I see a spider?” or “Why do I pass out at the sight of blood?”

While it may give some assurance if you can determine the origin of the fear, it still doesn’t actually help you do anything about it. This is a particularly important point to understand for those who live with people who experience phobias.

Many times, a spouse or parent will struggle to understand the reason for a loved one’s fear, causing that person to get caught up in the “Where did this come from?” question. If this is you, recognize that is a secondary issue and begin to focus more on how you can help your loved one live with their fear.

So, what can you do if you or one of your loved ones has a phobia and wants to work on overcoming it?

The answer isn’t easy. You must confront your fear.

The biggest reason that phobias are maintained is because people work really hard to avoid their phobia. When we are confronted with something that we fear, we think that we are in danger. Because of this, our brain automatically sends us a “fight or flight” response.

In the case of people with phobias, it’s nearly always a “flight” message. Because of this, people who have phobias begin to start avoiding anything that resembles their phobia. If you are afraid of snakes, you begin to avoid not just live snakes but also toy snakes, movies with snakes in them, sounds that remind you of snakes or maybe even the word “snake” itself. We gradually reduce our interaction with the thing that causes our anxiety.

This has a two-fold response. It temporarily reduces our fear, as we no longer are exposed to those things that make us afraid. This actually strengthens the phobia’s grip because fear begins to morph into a fear of anything the resembles the phobia.

To begin to challenge our fears, we need to first begin to challenge our belief that we are unsafe when we are experiencing our fear. There is a difference between being unsafe and anxious. If we can separate that, we can then begin to work on gradually exposing ourselves in very small increments to those things that we fear. So, if you or someone you love has a phobia, start trying to diminish its power over you by separating your anxiety from your safety.

Mischa McCray is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist. Send questions or topics you’d like him to discuss to mmccray@wpcgreenwood.org.

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