Whether it’s spiders, heights, bees, or knees, we all have something that sparks dread in the pit of our stomachs. The good news is you don’t need to let fear continue to hold you back...
Many people have irrational fears, and while most of us can control them, for some this fear can spiral out of control and cause severe anxiety – which is completely overwhelming, and not related to any real danger.
Fear becomes a phobia when it interferes with everyday life, and the more common phobias you’ll probably recognise include the fear of spiders, germs and diseases, flying, injections, or the dentist. Symptoms can include feeling dizzy, a racing heart, overwhelming panic, tingling, feeling sick, and an intense desire to escape.
When people are exposed to the feared object or situation, rationally they know that they are not in danger, but still they feel unable to manage their terror. However, you can break free from your fears and stop them from holding you back; once you understand them, it is possible to overcome irrational fears and phobias. Here are six essential ideas to keep in mind...
1. Don’t panic!
Irrational fears develop when our brain forms a connection between an object or event and a threat, so it prepares us for ‘fight or flight’. This can manifest as a full-blown panic attack, which is caused by over breathing or hyper-ventilating (taking large breaths in and short breaths out). By deliberately reversing that type of breathing, so that we breathe out more than in, we can calm down very quickly, and even start to feel relaxed.
Try breathing in for a count of seven, and out for a count of 11, for at least two minutes. Practise this several times a day, especially when you think about your feared situation.
2. Avoid avoiding
When we avoid the feared object or situation, initially we feel relief, but the fear returns the next time we are exposed to it, and may become worse. In this way we set up a ‘cycle of avoidance’. Because we never test out whether we really are in danger, we don’t allow our brain to form a new association. The aim is to reset that connection, forming a link between the feared thing and feeling relaxed. It is impossible to feel anxious and relaxed at the same time. So how do we do this?
3. Reality testing
When we experience an irrational fear, we tend to catastrophise, or imagine the worst possible outcome. By asking ourselves, ‘What is the worst that can happen?’ and ‘Just how likely is that to happen?’, we give our fears less power over us. We need to remind ourselves that the fear is unrealistic, and that we are perfectly safe.
4. Build your fear ladder and move up it
By gradually exposing ourselves to the fear, in a controlled and safe manner, it loses its grip on us. If you’re afraid of spiders, firstly look at a picture of a very small spider while doing your breathing exercise, until you feel calm. Next, look at a larger picture, then a video.
When you feel comfortable, try looking at a real spider in a box at a distance, bringing it gradually closer. Eventually let the spider out (ask someone to help if needed). Even if you have a strong urge to run, don’t. Keep doing your breathing. You are in control of the phobia, instead of the phobia controlling you.
5. Use your body
When we feel intense fear, our brain floods our body with chemicals such as cortisol and noradrenaline, speeding up our heart rate, and preparing us for action. Distract yourself by engaging your senses, and moving your body. Any sort of exercise will help by lowering those chemical levels, but particularly something outside.
Be aware of situations that trigger your fear, and when in one, start moving! Alternatively, do something creative: play an instrument, sing, draw, bake, or any activity that requires your full attention.
6. When therapy can help
If you have tried all of the above and are still having problems, or if you conquer your fear of one situation, but find it transfers to another, it may be an idea to seek expert support. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or hypnosis can be really helpful for addressing phobias.