Part one of this article gives a detailed description of various things that can contribute to triggering phobias off. (It's written as if it's one person's experience of getting several phobias. If you just want to read about how to get rid of phobias, you could skip it and go straight on to part two. But some people might find it helps them get insights into the causes of their own phobias if there are any similarities, which could help them get over them).
The article then describes ways of getting over phobias and calming fear. Then it explains relaxation techniques that can take the edge off people's worries while they're not in too close contact with the situations they fear, and a way of imagining going closer and closer to the feared animals while feeling calm and in control, without being near them in reality, to help re-train the brain to be able to think about being near them without automatically and immediately bringing on fear or panic sensations.
It also describes a technique for quickly calming the distress caused by memories of past upsetting experiences, whether caused by the phobia or by the feared animal or anything else.
The article then explains in detail a way people can desensitise themselves to animals they have phobias of by gradually getting closer to them in real life, in a controlled environment.
Lastly, it discusses ideas for making sure phobias stay away once they've been got rid of.
Skip past the following quotes if you'd like to get straight down to reading the article contents and self-help article.
All of us are born with a set of instinctive fears--of falling, of the dark, of lobsters, of falling on lobsters in the dark, or speaking before a Rotary Club ...
Am I afraid of high notes? Of course I am afraid. What sane man is not?
Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is.
He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.
To fear is one thing. To let fear grab you by the tail and swing you around is another.
--Katherine Paterson, (Jacob Have I Loved)
We fear things in proportion to our ignorance of them.
I'm going to have a long think about why I developed these phobias. I've heard that experts say you don't need to know why the phobias started to get cured. That's good. But I'd like to know how my fears got so out of proportion. There must be a reason. And if I can work out why it happened, It might help confirm to me what I suspect, that the alarm signals my brain started sending out when I got the phobias were caused by the distorted interpretations I put on things that happened over the years, not because there was real danger. That will help me understand and give me extra reassurance that I don't need to be frightened of them.
I want to think through all this privately, because I'd be so, so embarrassed to tell someone else, because they might think I'm really over-sensitive and silly. ... Maybe I am. But I can't help it, and it doesn't mean I'll stay that way.
Thinking about it, I think my fear of bees started when I was stung by one once when I was little, after picking flowers from a bush, but instead of getting sympathy, I was told off for picking the flowers and going so near a bush with bees in it. I think the mixture of pain, the warning not to go near bees, the fact that my fear levels were increased by being startled when I was shouted at, and the humiliation at being told off, which was especially shameful because there were other people around, made my brain start reacting quickly to send me alarm signals when I was around bees, that made me want to avoid them. I feel sure that had a lot to do with it anyway.
Now I think I've fully remembered, I'll try to reassure myself that I don't have to be so worried about bees in the future.
It might take more than that to get over the phobia though. I remember we were told several times at school that bees only sting when they're frightened, at least ordinary species, and actually, when the bee stung me, it probably was frightened, because it was crawling on me and I tried to brush it off about three times before it stung me. So I probably shouldn't worry that much really. I'm still scared of them though. Maybe there's something else I can do that'll help, that I'll find out about while I'm reading up about it.
I think my phobia of rats came about gradually over time. I remember coming downstairs just before I went to bed once when I was little, and there was a play on television, and I walked in the room as it was showing someone chained up in a cell with a rat running about his feet and him trying desperately to get away but not succeeding. I was disturbed by that image, and it gave me the impression that rats were out to harm people. I remember a few years later hearing about the dangers of catching diseases from being bitten by rats, and the terrible plagues of medieval times when so many people were killed because of the disease they caught from fleas carried on rats, and how there are so many rats in some cities nowadays that the pest controllers feel almost defeated by the problem.
I think those images and feelings I got because of my thoughts about rats being the ones with the power and control and being dangerous that got all exaggerated were at least part of what conditioned my brain to develop the phobia. I think that's where my suspicions came from about how I must avoid rats or they'll have the advantage over me since they're capable of defeating the efforts of humans, even though I know in my rational mind that rats might be a bit dangerous but they would be unlikely to be wilfully malicious, deliberately going out to defeat humans. My fear reactions to them have just been automatic, and I've tried to work out why they're happening later.
I'm not sure about my phobia of birds. I do remember once when I was far too young to be told about that kind of thing hearing about vultures eating dead people. I even heard about it on a children's radio programme for schools. I remember thinking what nasty things they must be. But I don't know why I started being afraid of all birds.
I do remember hearing someone complain when I was little about irritating birds doing droppings on clean washing, and I think I somehow got it into my head that they were doing it deliberately. I think that might have given me the impression that birds are nastier than they really are. I remember feeling disgusted with them after that, but then wondering if there was something wrong with me and getting bad feelings about it, because some people thought birds were lovely and wanted them around, and I couldn't understand why.
Perhaps I was just a bit neurotic. But I think I didn't really have much confidence about asking questions in case I got shouted at. I didn't have much confidence at all for a few years.
I remember being sharply told off for expressing disgust at a family friend's pet bird, but I wasn't told why I shouldn't express disgust at it, so I think that may have increased my anxiety about birds, because it made me imagine that being offensive about them was very bad and they were too delicate to say bad things about, but I didn't know why, so it became like an unnerving mystery. I think that was one thing that made me a bit fearful of speaking my mind and getting bad feelings out of my system, so I bottled them up.
I think those things might have started off the anxious feelings I had that ended up with me having a phobia. At least now I'm older, I can understand birds properly. For instance, Now I realise that vultures eating dead people is really a sensible design of nature to stop bodies just rotting and spreading disease.
I think feeling under pressure not to express my thoughts and feelings about birds was damaging, but then, I do remember one day when I went to the seaside with a friend and her family, and I was making fun of birds and making horrible comments about them a lot. And afterwards, one of the family did ask me why I'd done it. I didn't think she'd appreciate it if I told the truth though, that I just had feelings of dislike and minor anxiety towards them because I had a vague feeling that they were dangerous. After all, she liked birds, and she might not have understood if I'd said I was a bit fearful of them, and I was worried she'd laugh at me or be scornful. So I just expressed what was really just a minor concern about thinking they were dirty because they didn't care where they did their droppings. And she said they couldn't help it, and in fact their droppings were good for the soil because they were like fertilizer. It was left at that. Maybe if she'd asked me why such a thing would make them deserving of being made fun of all day, and I'd felt confident enough to express more of my feelings, and she'd discussed them with me calmly, things could have been different.
Maybe if instead of just asking me why I'd been horrible about them, she'd said something like, "What have those birds up there done to you to deserve being made fun of?" in a casual light-hearted way that would have relaxed me and made me more confident about talking about my feelings, I'd have developed a different perspective, where I was thinking of their well-being, rather than focusing unhealthily on my feelings about them. I'm not sure, but it might have worked.
Of course, I'm not blaming them for not doing that. It might not have worked anyway. But thinking it was such a serious thing made me more nervous about criticising them, so I was scared about saying the wrong thing and that might have contributed to me later getting the phobia.
Perhaps if I'd been given more to laugh about in general when I was growing up, it would have made me more relaxed around everyone and so less anxious.
Another thing that I think contributed to me getting the phobia of birds was hearing comments on the radio and from people around me sometimes that implied that humans are inferior to birds. I heard people talking laughingly about how while humans spend hours in front of the mirror trying to make themselves look pretty, birds don't need to do any of that. And I heard people saying that birds are more skilled than humans because they can fly, and so much more graceful. And I heard people talk about how they thought that birds were more civilised, because they don't invent weapons to go out and kill people with like humans do; the only thing they ever made was nests.
I think I must have just accepted what those people said, because I did start getting worries about being inferior after that, and feeling self-critical about silly things. For instance, if I thought I'd done something clumsy, I thought about how I was inferior to a more graceful bird. Or if someone else did something clumsy, I took it as a confirmation that humans were inferior.
Thoughts like that made me more anxious. I still find myself having thoughts like that nowadays, even though I'm old enough to know better than to just accept that kind of talk now. I ought to challenge them more.
I should have known better than to think those thoughts at the time. But I don't think it would have been a problem if I'd been with someone who'd taken a light-hearted attitude to what those people said and laughed it off as silly so I didn't take it all so seriously. If someone had been there at the time who'd disputed what I heard the people say, it would have given me a much more healthy perspective. I mean, of course birds don't make weapons; they haven't got the skills. But they do fight. And humans can't fly, but only because we haven't been designed to; and we're clever enough to have invented machines to fly in, as well as inventing all kinds of ingenious things. And not all humans spend hours in front of the mirror trying to make themselves look beautiful. And birds do do things to look good. And some humans can do very graceful things; and birds aren't graceful all the time.
Unfortunately, I didn't question what the people who made the comments were saying and mentally challenge it like that at the time. I think I just can't have been practiced enough in critical thinking and questioning authority at that point. And I don't think I was confident enough in my own skills and talents to have felt good about myself despite what they were saying. If I had been, I might have just shrugged it off.
Maybe if we'd had more opportunities at school to develop our creative and intellectual abilities in an enjoyable and challenging way that had enlivened our curiosity, my imagination and brain power would have been focused outwards on other things instead of on myself, so it wouldn't have turned its energy in on itself and become destructive, which was perhaps at least partly what was happening. We didn't do much at school that was all that interesting really.
Thinking about it though, it should have been obvious to me that what those people were saying was rubbish, because the evidence of its inaccuracy was staring me in the face. I mean, I knew there were people who didn't need to make much effort to look good. And so on. I think that maybe what they were saying just got more deeply imprinted on my mind than it should have done because it gave me bad feelings, because I already felt inferior. So whenever I was reminded of what they said, I got the same bad feelings, and it was the feelings that were the main problem, not just the thoughts.
Maybe another reason I accepted what they said as fact was that I'd been brought up to almost have an attitude of, "Adults know best, and who am I to question them?" So when I heard adults making comments that put humans down, I just assumed they must know what they were talking about. So I accepted what they said as true.
I did sometimes think what they said couldn't be true, and thinking back, I remember vaguely trying on a few occasions to fit the two contradictory viewpoints together into one reality, and I couldn't do it, because they couldn't both be true. Birds clearly couldn't be more civilised and clever than humans and less civilised and clever at the same time. So it was like a riddle I couldn't solve, just more unnerving confusion, that led to more anxiety.
I think the feelings and assumptions of inferiority I developed, that were at least partly to do with the comments I accepted as true that implied that humans had faults that I took to mean we were somehow of an inferior quality, increased my feelings of anxiety around birds. Those comments may have seemed harmless, but it was the effect of several of them on my uneducated thinking over time that I'm sure damaged my psyche. It was a build-up and build-up of negative messages over the years. It seems that some people want to be negative and critical a lot of the time when they haven't really got a good reason for doing that. It would be more healthy all round if they spent more of their time saying positive, encouraging things to help people instead, and if they resolved to only say negative things for a good reason.
I think one thing I'll do in the future to stop myself being influenced by that negative kind of talk is to make a few guesses as to the motivations of people saying that kind of thing. Maybe people who talk about birds being more civilised because they don't make weapons or kill for no good reason are just fed up with hearing about wars, and they have this funny romantic notion in their heads that birds have a superior mentality. Well, perhaps they've never seen birds getting bad-tempered and pecking each other when they're a bit overcrowded. If birds had more sophisticated brains, as well as putting them to more good uses like humans can, they'd be able to put them to more bad uses as well, in inventing more ways of fighting and reasons to do it. I don't really know what people's motivations were for saying the things they said, but I'm going to speculate, and I'll do that in the future as well, to make sure I don't just take in what they say, so I'll keep myself more mentally healthy.
I still started worrying that birds might want to harm me. Sometimes I worried that I was inferior to birds because they were more civilised because they didn't make weapons like humans, and things like that, but at other times, I worried about not being able to cope if they wanted to do me any damage. It seems strange when I look at it that way, but I think my thoughts about birds must have been confused, because of the mixed messages I'd taken in about them. I think my confusion made me more anxious.
I think I might have got my phobia of spiders partly because when I was little, a lot of people around me said they were scared of spiders, so I just assumed they were things to be afraid of.
But I do remember one morning when I was little, I found a spider in a cereal bowl as I was about to pour myself some breakfast, and Mum snatched the bowl away from me quickly and got rid of the spider and put the bowl in the sink. I was quite startled and a bit alarmed by that. It made me think it was important to get away from spiders quickly.
I don't blame my mum for startling me. She didn't know it was going to make me anxious. She didn't know I'd worry about it for days and put interpretations on things that I shouldn't have done that would cloud my thinking for ages.
But I think all those things might have caused the feelings that developed into a phobia. If I'd seen people being confident around spiders when I was young, maybe it wouldn't have happened.
Also, I remember having a baby-sitter when I was very little sometimes, who used to dangle little bits of string in front of my face and pull them away quickly, and move them all around my face so I couldn't catch them, laughing at me when I didn't like it or couldn't catch them, so I felt humiliated. So I think that contributed to making me scared of little things that move fast, even though the problem was really the big baby-sitter who should have known better.
After my phobia began, what happened was like a vicious circle, the way it was with my other phobias.
Once I'd felt really anxious in the presence of an animal, I wanted to avoid it in future to avoid the feelings of fear I felt sure I was going to get in its presence.
Because I thought I knew I was going to get feelings of anxiety when I was near it, I was more worried about being in its presence.
So when there was a risk of having to be around it, or when I came across it, my worry probably contributed to me getting more nasty feelings of fear, which made me want to avoid it more so I wouldn't get the feelings of fear.
And the more I avoided it, the more I felt sure I'd feel fear when I was near it, because I kept telling myself that I was avoiding it because it scared me so much.
The more I told myself that, the more I worried every time I had to be near it.
And the more I worried, the more I increased the anxiety that made me fearful when I was near it.
And so on.
So I might really be more scared of the feelings of fear than I am of the animals, only it's difficult to distinguish one fear from the other, because the fear feelings come on so quickly after I've seen one of the animals.
I'm not sure how I got my fear of dogs. I've never been bitten by one. But I do remember reading a horrible news article once when I was little about a child being savaged by a dog, and it was an especially stressful time for me when I read that, because I was being bullied at school, and my parents were talking about how they might get divorced. Maybe my brain somehow mixed my stress about those things up with the bad feelings I had about dogs after reading that story, or maybe I read it when I was feeling particularly anxious, so it was easier for my feelings to develop into fear, and then my brain associated dogs with anxiety from then on, and that's why it started sending more fear signals than necessary after that when I saw a dog, because it thought it needed to motivate me to get away, and after that, I wanted to avoid dogs because I knew I got such alarming feelings around them.
I know other people can have bad things happen to them like even being bitten by animals and not develop phobias. So I'm not sure why I developed them while others don't, apart from maybe the thing about anxiety levels with the dogs, and perhaps the extra things that happened when I got stung by the bee. But I'm sure that some people have much more serious things happen to them but don't develop phobias.
Maybe it was partly the way I thought about the things afterwards. People who think about them differently might not attach so much significance to things as I did.
Maybe it was partly that I kept my thoughts to myself and didn't discuss them with other people who could have refreshed my thinking with alternative and more common sense viewpoints. Maybe if we'd mixed more with other people as a family, I would have been exposed to more healthy viewpoints before things got too bad. I wouldn't necessarily have to have discussed my thoughts with other people. Things related to the subjects would probably have come up anyway so I'd have been exposed to different viewpoints without bringing up the subjects myself. Or even just being in entertaining company more often where I could have learned to be more light-hearted and not to take life so seriously would have helped.
I think being encouraged to feel more compassionate towards animals as well could have stopped me developing the phobias. If perhaps I'd been given books with stories about animals in difficulty who were helped or something, maybe I'd have developed a compassion for them that would have prevented me from beginning to view them as a threat.
Maybe also, the personality I've been developing since I was a baby is just more prone to anxiety than other people's, for several reasons. Perhaps I learned some of the anxiety from Mum. She gets stressed easily.
I don't know why most of my fears suddenly developed into phobias in my mid teens. A couple were phobias before then, like my phobia of bees. But most were just fairly minor fears, and then it seemed that only very minor things suddenly triggered them into full-blown phobias. I remember my full-blown phobia of rats just began after I'd been feeling particularly affectionate one night because I was in a good mood, and a friend of mine had a tame pet rat, and I was playing with it, and she commented that I seemed to be getting particularly attached to it. My fear increased suddenly in the days after that. I think my thoughts must have become corrupted by then, because I do remember alarm bells ringing after that, because I must have had this subconscious anxiety about rats being able to get power and control over me because of my thoughts about what I'd heard and seen before, and I think I had this distorted idea that if I became attached to the rat, it would be a sign of weakness, because it would mean it was kind of controlling me in a way, because if I was emotionally attached to it it would have more influence over me. I know it was a warped way of thinking. I don't know quite why I started thinking like that. But my full-blown phobia of rats started from around that point.
It still puzzles me that something so minor could have set it off. Maybe it was what they call the tipping point. I've read something about that. I can't remember what it said, but it was something about how things can be like something you're tipping out of a jug. You can tip it a bit and nothing happens, tip it a bit further and only minor things happen, and then tip it exactly the same amount as you just did, but something much more major begins to happen. So with a phobia, it might happen that anxious thoughts build up and build up, and then something only minor has to happen to cause a major reaction.
Or maybe when my hormones were doing major things anyway because I was a teenager, it didn't take much to send my brain chemistry out of balance. I'm not sure.
Actually, I remember reading that the age when phobias often come on is in the teenage years, maybe because people want to fit in most at that age, and are developing their identities; so any rejection of them that belittles who they are as a person will seem worse than it will when people are older and more confident in their identity, knowing they've done things they can be proud of and feeling more sure of their opinions and so on; so it'll cause more anxiety in teenagers and stop them being so confident in who they are; belittling them can feel like an attack on who they are.
That might have happened to me. There was a group in my class at school who thought that to be cool you had to be a certain way, and that people who weren't, like me, were inferior. They used to make contemptuous comments about us. I wasn't old and experienced in life enough to know that it's perfectly OK to be not as sophisticated as they seemed to think it was important to be. I found out later that I was perfectly acceptable to some people when I left that school and made new friends who weren't like the kids who thought they were the best at my school at all, but were still well-liked, and liked me. So it turned out there wasn't much wrong with my identity as a person after all.
I think my paranoia or whatever it was about not having enough control when rats were around might have got going because of several little things that happened that had nothing to do with rats. I think my parents caused me to feel a little bit like that sometimes when I was around them, because when they asked me to do little things, like cut a cake into equal portions, if I started making a bit of a mess of it, instead of praising me for anything I had done right and giving me ideas on how to do the rest better, they would just criticize me and immediately take over, as if they were sure I wouldn't be able to do even that right; and that made me feel less capable than other people and a bit stupid and humiliated.
But I think something that made me feel like that more was the times when other people made me feel less capable than them, and they made me feel as if I couldn't control things, like when someone I'd thought of as a good friend asked me if I wanted a bit of chocolate, but when I reached out for it she snatched it away, and ran off to a group of friends who laughed at me, and then wanted to be with them instead of me. There were a few things like that that happened, so I think that's partly what might have sparked off my fears about people wanting to get the better of me, even people who were supposed to be nice to me, and me not being able to control things.
I know another thing was when my brother turned his music up really loud when our parents had gone out on a few occasions when I was trying to do my homework, and it stopped me being able to concentrate, and he refused to turn it down no matter what I said, so that made me feel frustrated and increased my feelings of not having enough power.
I remember some of the things people said made me feel a bit stupid and humiliated and less capable than other people as well. I remember one thing happened when I was about ten, when a teacher, who we all thought was one of the nicest ones we'd had, asked our class to imagine we were being thrown out of our houses at the end of the week and we were only allowed to take one thing with us. She asked each of us what we'd take. I imagined how cold it would be at night on the street, so I said I'd take my bed. She said in front of the others that that was a stupid idea! She didn't ask me why I said I'd take that. It didn't seem to occur to her that I might have had a decent reason for saying it. She just moved on to asking the others in the class what they'd take. She praised all their ideas. One of them said she'd take all the jewellery out of her jewellery box. Well, I knew my jewellery box didn't have any real jewellery in it, and I assumed any other child's one would be unlikely to contain anything of much value either. But her idea wasn't criticized, or even questioned. It was praised as a great idea.
That incident and the others were only minor things, but that one left me feeling less confident that I could trust my own judgment, and a bit less capable, especially since I was taught that adults know best. What caused my build-up of anxiety, I think, was a drip-feed of little incidents like that, any one of which might have been quickly forgotten on its own, but because there were quite a few of them, they gradually made me less confident.
Later on, other people ridiculed things I'd said out of all proportion to what they deserved as well, and it made me feel even less confident that I was a capable person, and left me feeling that it was easy for people to get the upper hand over me. Perhaps if I'd been encouraged to stand up for myself from an early age, it wouldn't have happened. I'm getting better at doing that now, so hopefully it'll help things improve.
I think my anxious feelings about not having the power and control I needed in life started to build up gradually a few years before my phobias developed, because of all those things and similar things like them. I think perhaps the reason one of the phobias focused on rats and suddenly came on when it did might have been because of the link between my feelings of not having the power to stop things happening that I didn't like, even with people who were supposed to be nice to me, and those false impressions I'd got before about rats being able to get the better of humans.
Maybe in future when I get a fear urge when something to do with a rat happens, I wonder if it would help if I thought to myself, "Hang on, I don't have to have this feeling anymore. I'm only having it because of the way people made me feel in the past, and I know I don't have to feel like that anymore".
But I think in the past, I bottled up all the anxious feelings I had about everything, not expressing them, so I didn't have an outlet for them, so they stayed around in my system making me more and more anxious over time.
I know my thoughts got all out of balance. But though I realise that my own thoughts were distorted and corrupted, thinking about it, they were only feeding off other people's thoughts that were corrupted and distorted in different ways, so it's no real wonder I got that way.
I mean, surely a person has to be a bit sick to write a play, for the purposes of people's entertainment, where someone tries to get away from a rat but can't.
Surely it's a bit cruel to shout at a child when it's been stung by a bee, even if it has just been ruining your favourite bush by picking the flowers off it.
Surely it was inconsiderate of my parents to have talked about how they didn't like each other and were thinking of separating, in front of children, who, if my parents had thought about it, they could have realised were likely to get stressed by it.
And if schools did more to stop bullying, they'd be less stressful environments for children to be in.
If I hadn't been so stressed already by those things, reading the story about the dog savaging the child might not have pushed my anxiety levels up so high that my reaction to dogs became phobic.
But then, surely the media has to be a bit sick as well to put the gory details of that kind of thing in their papers, just because they're hoping they'll sell more of them, as they probably did.
People with phobias are said to be mentally ill; but I think to describe suffering in the cause of entertaining people, or to know bullying's going on in your playgrounds but not do your best to stop it, is far sicker than I've ever been.
Surely it was irresponsible of people to have talked casually about how spiders are scary around young children who might pick up the fear from them. And to do something like snatch away someone's cereal bowl as if something's seriously wrong when there's a spider in it is a bit extreme, and bound to cause fear, although I can't blame Mum for that, because she is easily stressed.
And surely a person has to be a bit sick to put together a radio programme for children that talks about the gory details of vultures eating dead people. I don't remember anyone on it explaining that vultures eating bodies actually has its benefits because it stops bodies being left around to rot and contaminate things. I think it would have been allright if they had explained that.
But then, I know there were other children who heard the programme with me who've never developed a phobia of birds, or even a tiny tiny bit of anxiety. Maybe I just thought about certain aspects of it more than they did afterwards, or maybe the combination of factors that preconditioned me to get the phobia didn't happen to them.
I suppose I can't really blame that person for snapping at me when I made that comment about how disgusted I was by their friend's pet bird. I suppose they were just embarrassed because they thought I might offend their friend, although I didn't think of it like that at the time, because I was too young to have realised that people are concerned about these points of etiquette. I thought I must have done something very wrong. It would have been nicer if they could have just made a quick comment to me about how I might be hurting their friend's feelings by talking like that because she liked her pet bird, without making a big deal out of it.
And people do have to have distorted, one-sided thinking to make comments disparaging humans, characterising us as all clumsy or vain, or saying we all have to spend hours making ourselves look anywhere near decent, or implying that we're all out to kill other people. It was as if they think we're not capable of doing very graceful things, and we haven't achieved some great things, and they don't realise that it's only really a minority of people who kill other people. To take a few select facts, such as the fact that birds can fly and humans can't, and to make out even if not deliberately that that means humans are somehow of inferior quality, is to put forward a biased and unrealistic perspective. The trouble is that children may be listening to such comments who take them in as if they're true, because they haven't developed the skills to see them for what they really are. I think that's what happened to me. I know comments like that only seem trivial, but if you keep hearing the same messages over time, chances are, you'll start assuming they're true, unless you have the wisdom or knowledge to challenge them, or you're with someone else who does.
... Actually, I'm probably taking this way too seriously. It's just because I feel a bit bitter about what happened to me. I bet they didn't mean those comments all that seriously. At least some of them. I think I took them to heart a lot more than was sensible, because they confirmed the feelings of inferiority I already had. Still, I don't know why people want to say things like that.
So I think the conditioning I got to develop my phobias was due to faults in society, not just to my own faulty thinking, although that probably counted for a lot.
I remember the first times I ran away from some of the things I'd developed phobias of. I just did it because something came over me all of a sudden that made me so instantly fearful that I just felt as if I had to get away. I hadn't had the slightest inkling before that happened that I might want to run away from those things. I didn't think anything like, "If those birds start getting noisy, I'm just going to have to run away". Running away had never entered my mind till I did it. But I do remember worrying about how I was feeling anxious in the presence of animals, and feeling worse the nearer I was to them. So I suppose there was a build-up to it, and maybe my subconscious mind or the bit of my brain that controls emotions was programming itself to send me signals if something happened to make the anxiety worse that would make me run away, because the more I worried, the more it got the message that I was in danger.
I remember worrying about how unpleasant an experience I was just about to have before I had to go near some of the animals I'd developed a fear of. I wonder if I could have pulled myself out of it if I'd thought,
"Stop letting yourself get all anxious when there's no need.
How likely are you really to be harmed by these things?
Why aren't you crediting yourself with the capabilities to defend yourself if anything does happen?
And why are they any more likely to pick on you than to pick on anyone else?
Why would they want to pick on anyone at all?"
I don't know. But it didn't occur to me to think like that. All I was interested in was finding ways to cope in the moment, like planning how to avoid the animals, or worrying about whether I'd be able to keep my feelings under control if I had to be near them. It was as if a new emergency had suddenly come upon me, and all my resources were taken up with doing those things. It's like the story of the man who saw people in the river and was worried they'd drown if he didn't get them out, so he got to work and started pulling them out, but no matter how many people he pulled out, he saw more and more that needed help. Then he saw a man strolling along the river bank, just walking straight past without even looking at what was going on. He angrily got hold of the man and told him to help him pull the people out of the river. The man calmly replied that he couldn't stop, because he was on his way to stop the man upstream who was pushing them all in.
I was so caught up with trying to cope with the symptoms of the phobia, which I thought desperately needed doing, mainly by working out ways of avoiding the animals, that I didn't seem to have time and it didn't occur to me to try to stop it at its source.
Apparently, that's what psychologists tell us we ought to try to do though, stopping it at its source, by questioning all the thoughts that contribute to it being as strong as it is, like if we're worried we're going to be harmed by what we're scared of but there isn't any good reason to be worried.
But then I think another reason I didn't do that was because of all the thoughts I'd had before I got the phobias that conditioned me to believe the animals were likely to want to harm me, or that there were other reasons to be fearful of them, even though I was well aware that my fear was way out of proportion to their threat. After all, if you believe something, why will it ever occur to you to question it?
After that though, I started developing more and more anxious thoughts, like worrying more and more that the animals I was afraid of might want to attack me. I focused on anything I found, like news stories, that confirmed to me that the animals I was scared of did harmful things. Things like that enabled me to justify my fears to myself, but at the same time, they were making them worse.
Perhaps if someone had encouraged me to challenge my anxious thinking right at the start, things wouldn't have got as bad as they've been over the years. Maybe I'd have got over it before I had any serious distress. But I can't blame anyone for not doing that, because they wouldn't have known what to say, and I didn't give many people any idea of what was going on anyway, because I felt too ashamed of my phobias, so no one knew what was going on in my mind.
Still, I'm going to try challenging my anxious thoughts about the animals I'm afraid of being harmed by now.
I've always known that my phobias were irrational. I know I don't need to be anywhere near as scared as I get. I've always thought it would sound silly if I told anyone I had phobias, because I knew I was getting the fear out of proportion to the real risk of these animals. But one thing I've never done, which I'll try now, is to work out what anxious thoughts I have that contribute to my phobias getting worse, and challenge them. If I can sit down somewhere restful, where I can be fairly sure I'm not going to want to jump up and put an emergency phobic avoidance plan into operation, I can think these things through. ...
Well, I've looked around this room, and there don't seem to be any spiders around, and I don't think any of the other animals I'm frightened of will get in here, so I'm fairly certain I can sit down now and have a good undisturbed think.
I can't seem to help getting frightened when I see birds and spiders and things. The fear just comes on automatically as soon as one comes near me. But thinking about it, there are thoughts I have at other times that might keep my phobias going. When I'm planning how to avoid the animals and insects I'm afraid of, I think things like, "I've got to think through how to stop them coming too near me, because it would be awful to encounter them when I couldn't do anything to get away." It might help if I examine why I think it would be so bad:
What am I afraid will happen if they come near me and I can't get away easily? ...
Well, firstly, I'm worried about making a fool of myself by getting scared.
But what else am I afraid of? If I can convince myself that there really isn't much to be anxious about, I might not get so scared anymore, and then I won't have to worry any more about getting far more scared than I need to be and having horrible feelings and looking silly. So why do I think that spiders, birds, rats, dogs and bees are worth getting so anxious over?
I think one thing is that I'm worried about not being in control, because they have an advantage over me, because maybe birds could come and attack me and then quickly get away, and spiders could bite me and then get away really quickly.
with bees, rats and dogs, I know being harmed by them is more likely; but would birds and spiders really want to harm me? How likely is it really that they would? I've hardly ever heard of anyone in this country suffering because they were bitten by a spider, and I've never heard of everyday birds attacking anyone. I'll do a bit more investigation into the likelihood of being harmed by spiders or birds in this country.
But I know that one problem I have is that when I read something bad, I focus on it, thinking about how bad it is, and I suppose I ignore other information that puts the animals in a better light. I've been thinking though, and I think focusing on the worst aspects like I do makes my phobia worse.
It might help if I keep reassuring myself that bad things only happen to a very small minority of people every time I catch myself doing that.
Why else do birds and spiders make me anxious?
I think in the back of my mind, I've got this worry that they're unpredictable, that I've got no way of telling what they're thinking, so I don't know what they're going to do next.
But really, how likely is it that they're going to be thinking of doing me any harm? Why would they want to?
I think I'm worried that birds will be able to tell I'm scared of them, so they might think I'm a threat, and come and attack me.
But that's never happened before. And I've never heard of it happening to anyone else.
I think it's just the possibility that they could that bothers me.
OK, if they tried, what would most likely happen, and what could I do to stop them?
Well, birds aren't really likely to fly at me wanting to do me some damage. Most of them are too scared to go too near humans. But suppose one of them tried. What could I do?
Well, I might get slightly injured, but most of them are so small that I'd probably quickly be able to scare them off and get them away from me.
I'll think about dogs. I think I just assume that I'm likely to get bitten by one if I get too close, and that a lot of people do. But I wonder how common being bitten by one really is. I'm going to look at some statistics. ...
I've found some statistics from 1994 that say that in America, it was far less common for someone to have a dog bite that needed medical treatment than it was for someone to have a car accident that did, a sports injury that did, or even a fall that did. Only 1 in 6 dog bites needed medical attention, and with adults it was only 1 in 12. Only about 300 dog attacks were fatal in a year, and I think there are nearly 300 million Americans, and it says that more than one in three families has a pet dog and that there are about 52 million dogs in America. Almost all the fatal attacks were on children. They say that more than three quarters of dog bite victims were children, with the most common age being between five and nine. I know some children do things to dogs that are bound to aggravate them, like pulling their ears or fur, though I don't suppose anywhere near all the attacks were provoked like that. They say that nearly four out of five dogs that bit someone belonged to their family or friend. So people are at much less risk of being bitten by unfamiliar dogs.
I'll look on the Internet for statistics on being harmed by other animals. It does mean being careful though, because it might mean exposing myself to gory descriptions of attacks from websites of victims of animal attacks, who might make the animals out to be more dangerous than they really are, or misinformation from enthusiasts who're trying to convince everyone they're nearly all harmless. I'll have to try to find websites that look official and reputable, although even encyclopaedias might focus more on the bad things. But I'm less likely to get the worst information if I use keywords in my Internet searches that don't include unpleasant things.
I'll have a look for statistics and other information on spiders. I think some questions I might want to find out the answers to are:
... I've found the answers to those, and other information.
I've found some statistics that say that about 80 % of bites thought to have been caused by spiders were really caused by other things like lice, fleas, biting flies, mosquitoes, ants, and other small animals, and that most spiders are harmless and wouldn't even be able to pierce human skin because they're so small. Spiders that are dangerous are usually found only in warm climates, like where there are deserts. Even there, death from a spider bite is very rare. People most at risk are young children or elderly people, or people with other medical problems like immune deficiency. There are apparently believed to be well over 35 thousand species of spider in the world. But of those, only a mere 20 to 30 have venom powerful enough to harm humans, and spiders don't really like to bite humans; they only do it when provoked.
It says Spiders really do humans a great service in keeping down the population of pest insects like mosquitoes. It says that there would be millions more of them if it wasn't for spiders. It says that the big spiders that usually come into people's houses at certain times of year are often just harmless males looking for a mate, in Britain anyway.
I could try reassuring myself with thoughts like the ones I've just been thinking. Whenever I get thoughts that tell me I must make more plans to avoid the animals I'm scared of, I'll try to think of the reasons why I think I need to do that, and challenge them with reassuring thoughts. I could write the reassuring thoughts down so I can just look at them whenever I get anxious thoughts about needing to avoid animals, so it'll be easier to remind myself of them. Then I'll make my list of reassuring thoughts longer as I think of more of them over time. I'll get a notebook.
When I've made the list, I could even practise reassuring myself by sitting down in a relaxed way, and deliberately letting a hostile or worrying thought come into my mind, and then immediately thinking or saying "Stop!" and then saying it again if the thought won't go away, and then taking in my list of reassuring thoughts. If I practise doing that lots of times, then hopefully, thinking the reassuring thoughts will become automatic whenever I get a worrying thought; and maybe sooner or later, I won't even get the worrying ones.
I'll take my list of reassuring thoughts with me when I go out, so if I begin to feel frightened, I can always look at them and think about them.
I'll try determining whether any other thoughts spark off anxious feelings, and if so, what they are. Then I'll examine the evidence for and against each anxious thought that comes to mind about the reasons to avoid the animals I'm afraid of.
I'll try to think of the thoughts as theories I have rather than facts, and think of myself as being on a mission to find out whether the theories are correct. So, for instance, one of the things I'm still worried about is that a bird will attack me, so I could list all the reasons why it might, and then the reasons why it might not, and see which list is the most convincing.
So perhaps my two lists would be something like this:
On my list of arguments against the likelihood of me being attacked by birds, I could say things like:
In conclusion, I don't usually need to be scared of birds after all.
Now I just need the part of my brain that controls emotions to register all those things.
I could help myself sort out the evidence for and against things I'm anxious about happening by writing down questions and answering them, like:
I might be able to reassure myself a bit by answering those questions.
Maybe I'll try writing lists with arguments for and against the likelihood of bad things happening for all my phobias.
I think next, I'll write lists of all the evidence for and against the need to be scared of rats.
Therefore, rats aren't such a powerful menace as I've been thinking.
Whenever I catch myself thinking that something might harm me more than someone without a phobia would think it would harm them, I think I'll make another one of those lists of evidence for and against the thought.
The thing is, I can believe these things aren't as dangerous as I used to think they were, but still get the nasty fear feelings when I see them, as if my body still thinks they are.
Maybe as I reassure myself more and more and keep on thinking about how these things aren't as dangerous as I've been thinking, being careful not to dwell on horrible thoughts about them but challenging them whenever I get them, my body's instant fear reactions will subside.
I wonder if I over-estimate the awfulness of what would happen to my emotions if I had to be in the room with one of these animals as well, even if they didn't touch me or do anything harmful. I don't really think about what would happen much. I just feel as if I have to avoid them otherwise something bad will happen. I'm going to think more about what would happen if one of them caught me by surprise and I couldn't get away. I'll ask myself some questions:
I'll try answering those:
I could maybe just say something like,
"I know I don't need to be scared of animals. I've got a phobia. People with phobias know they're irrational, but they just can't stop them just like that when they want to. I don't really know why it came on. But I'm researching the best ways of dealing with it".
I think I've been imagining that I'm not going to be able to explain myself. But I think I can really. And if the animal came closer to try to show me that I didn't need to be scared of it, supposing it had noticed in the first place, the worst that could happen would probably be that I'd have horrible feelings of fear for several seconds, but then they'd hopefully begin to go away.
I remember on that school trip, one thing I started doing automatically to calm myself down (I think I must have heard the tip on the radio somewhere) was to start breathing in a slow steady rhythm, controlling my breathing so I was breathing in to the count of about five, and breathing slowly out to the count of about five, making sure I didn't gasp air in, but breathing the same amount in or out with each number, so I was breathing slowly and steadily all the way through. That did seem to make me feel less anxious. I think it stopped my heart beating so fast, and the tingling sensations I was feeling in my fingers, and I stopped shaking so much. It did seem to make me calmer. So I could try doing that all the time.
I think the most humiliating things that have ever happened to me with these phobias, the things that have left the scars on my memory, are the times when I've severely embarrassed myself by running away from animals, like in the street.
But if I knew I couldn't run away, and I knew the animal wasn't that likely to harm me really, I'd have no option but to try to control my emotions, and I know from thinking about the past that I can do that if I know I can't get away and I really have to control them. It's unpleasant feeling anxious, but I can cope, especially if I do that controlled breathing. So really, I know that the worst things have happened when I've been trying to avoid animals, not when I've known I couldn't. So if I spend time reassuring myself that the animals I'm scared of are much less likely to harm me than I think, for all the reasons I've already gone over in my mind and maybe more, and then when I encounter some animals, I behave as if I just have to be there, and do my best to put the coping techniques I know I have into operation, maybe things won't be as bad as I think after all, and they'll even be better than trying to avoid what I'm afraid of, which is what I do now.
So in future, if I find myself worrying that I'm not going to be able to cope if something bad happens, I'll challenge my thinking and work out how I could cope.
So, for instance, if I was watching television and thought I just wouldn't be able to cope if they showed a spider, I could think,
"OK, what's the worst that could happen?"
And if the worst that's likely to happen is that I'll feel unpleasantly fearful just for a few seconds till it goes away, and I'll probably have forgotten the incident by tomorrow, I'll know I'm worrying more than I need to.
Or if I go to a friend's home and discover she's got a bird in a cage, and I think that if it starts flapping its wings and squawking, I won't be able to cope, I could ask myself what's the worst thing that could happen, and maybe think,
"OK, I might do something embarrassing, and my friend might wonder why I'm behaving so fearfully, but I know I can explain myself. I know people don't have to be embarrassed about phobias really, because people can't help having them, and society needs to learn that, if it doesn't know already. Lots of people do have phobias, so they might understand perfectly how I feel. And she might not even remember what happened next week."
I can't always think of specific thoughts I have that make my fears worse. Maybe over time, I'll think of more though. I'll be on the lookout for them. Maybe after I've been in a frightening situation, I can think back over it briefly to see if I can remember any thoughts I had during it that I can challenge, or I'll see if thinking about it afterwards brings thoughts into my mind that I can challenge. Or maybe I can think about any scary images that come to mind, and that'll help me realise what the thoughts behind them are.
For as children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness, so we in the light sometimes fear what is no more to be feared than the things children in the dark hold in terror and imagine will come true.
--Titus Lucretius Carus [99-55 B.C.]
I've heard about some people getting over phobias by using exposure therapy, desensitising themselves to what they're afraid of by gradually spending more and more time in its presence. It sounds a bit gruesome, but I'll think about trying it. I really want to get over this phobia. The thing is, I'm not sure exposure therapy would work, because I know I've been made to be in the presence of animals before, but my anxiety didn't go down. For instance, I remember when we went to that farm for the day on that school trip. I had to spend hours with animals around, and I did manage to keep my anxiety under control, although I refused to go too close to them. But my anxiety didn't go down as the day went on, and after that, I think I wanted to avoid animals even more, because the anxiety had been so upsetting! I remember feeling really upset for some time afterwards that I had this problem.
But maybe exposure therapy would be different, if I could be the one in control of what was going on. I think before when I've been made to be in the presence of these things, I didn't have much control over what happened, and some of the time, I couldn't predict what the animals might do, which made me more anxious. Sometimes, they appeared unexpectedly, giving me a nasty surprise. With exposure therapy, I'd hopefully be able to control exactly what happened when, and be in the presence of the animals for as long or as short a time as I wanted. I think that might make a difference.
I think that first of all though, I'll see how well trying to change my thoughts diminishes my fear. It's possible that realising that distorted thought patterns were partly what brought my phobias on and maybe part of what keeps them going will make me feel relieved, because at least I'll know I haven't got them because I know deep down that there's a serious reason why I need to have them. So it might help me think I don't have to have them after all, and so it might diminish them, or even make them go away altogether. But if that doesn't happen, I'll try other things.
One thing I could try to help me get over the bad memories of experiences I've had in the past, and to help me be calmer around the animals I've got the phobias of, is a technique I've heard about, where I'd first have to relax as deeply as I can, maybe by finding nice pictures of nature scenes without the animals I'm scared of in them, or photos or postcards of places where I'd enjoy being, and then looking at them for some time, day-dreaming about being there, until I'm feeling restful and relaxed.
It could be anywhere I'd enjoy being really.
Then, I would have to imagine I'm someone very slightly different from myself, and that I'm watching myself sitting looking at a television screen and holding a remote control box. I could imagine I can't see much of what's going on myself, but I see myself turn a video on, and it's a video of one of my most distressing experiences with one of my phobias. I hopefully won't be that bothered by it, partly because I'm relaxed, partly because it can go faster than the experience went in real life, and partly because I'm not imagining being in the experience again; I'm not even imagining watching myself being there; I'm imagining watching myself watching myself being there.
When I've imagined my distressing experience has played through on the video, I could imagine I'm me again, and I've got the remote control box in my hand, and I'm watching the television screen. Then I could imagine I'm rewinding the scene of my bad experience, so it's playing backwards and at speed. Then, I could imagine fast forwarding it, so things are happening in the right order, but they're happening all speeded up. Then I could imagine rewinding it again, so I could imagine them going backwards and all speeded up again, and then I could imagine I'm fast forwarding the events again. I could imagine I'm rewinding and fast forwarding them until I don't feel any anxiety at all while I'm imagining doing it. Then, I could imagine rewinding the video to a point before my experience to a time where I felt safe, as if the bad experience is fading away into the distance.
Afterwards, if I'm still feeling relaxed, I could make myself feel more alert if I need to be by doing things like rubbing my hands together for a few seconds and standing up and moving around a bit.
I could do that procedure on several occasions, thinking of a different experience that distresses me each time to imagine rewinding and fast forwarding when I'm relaxed. It may be that after that, those experiences don't distress me any more, and I don't get fearful around the animals I've been afraid of any more, because my subconscious mind will have learned to think about them without associating them with fear, so it won't send out the fear signals immediately I see an animal like the ones I had the distressing experience with. I know it sends me the fear signals because it's trying to protect me, because it thinks the animals are dangerous so it needs to put me into fight or flight mode so I can protect myself against them better. But when it knows I can think about experiences with the animals and be far from distressed, hopefully it'll stop doing it. I know it's only trying to take care of my interests by protecting me, which is good really, but I have to teach it that it doesn't need to do that with the animals.
Maybe after I've had a go at the rewinding and fast forwarding technique, seeing animals on a television screen won't bother me any more, because of my memories of seeing them going forwards and backwards when I was so relaxed. Maybe, I'll even feel better about seeing animals for real, because if my past experiences don't distress me any more, I won't associate seeing the animals with distressing experiences any more, so seeing them might not make me anxious any more. If it doesn't, I won't have to do this exposure therapy at all. Or if I do deliberately expose myself to a few situations I used to fear, it might just be a great exercise in self-congratulation, with me feeling really pleased and encouraged that I can now be in the presence of the animals I used to be afraid of without them bothering me.
In fact, if I'm feeling confident that imagining my distressing experiences with animals going backwards and forwards all speeded up while I'm feeling relaxed has helped a lot, I might even go out and try to encounter an animal like the one I was thinking of, to see if I can be near it without being fearful anymore. I'll be pleased if I can. Maybe I'll do the procedure a few times before I do that.
If I can't get into this rewinding and fast forwarding technique, or it doesn't work well for me, I'll think about doing this exposure therapy after all. But before I do, and maybe at around the same time as I'm trying the rewinding technique, I could spend several days just imagining doing the exposure therapy. That'll be less stressful than doing it for real, because with imaginary animals, I'll know for sure I can be the one in control, and that I won't have to be in their presence in my mind for any longer than I'm prepared to tolerate each time.
I could do something relaxing first each time, like day-dreaming about being somewhere nice, and doing that technique of breathing slowly and steadily for a few minutes that can make people feel calmer; and then I could spend about ten minutes a day imagining I'm going near something I'm afraid of; but instead of imagining being afraid of it, I could imagine I'm feeling calm.
I could read all those reassuring thoughts I wrote before, before I do my practises of that. And then, instead of worrying that I won't be able to cope when I encounter these animals because horrible feelings of fear will come over me, I could day-dream about getting nearer and nearer the animals and feeling calm and in control, and eventually even touching them, but not minding.
I know I don't even like to think about the animals I'm scared of at the moment. But if I know I'm going to deliberately go near them soon, it'll be better to start imagining myself being calm near them before I start, imagining feeling sure I can control the situation.
Actually, it might be allright imagining myself near them, because I won't be focusing my thoughts on the animals themselves. I'll be concentrating on how I imagine myself feeling, strong and unruffled.
I don't have to imagine ten straight minutes in the presence of the animals. I could first imagine viewing them from a distance and then leaving calmly as soon as they make me just a little bit anxious. Then I can do something nice to relax myself for a couple of minutes, and then imagine going and viewing them from a distance for the same amount of time again. When I start to get just a little bit anxious, I'll imagine calmly leaving again, relax for a couple of minutes, and then imagine going back. I'll imagine repeating the process. When I'm able to imagine viewing the animals for an amount of time without being anxious at all, I can go on to imagining I'm a bit nearer them, and then leaving as soon as I get a bit anxious, relaxing for a couple of minutes and then going back and viewing them from there for the same amount of time again, and doing that again and again till I'm not anxious at all while I'm imagining it.
I could imagine going nearer and near them gradually, always imagining leaving as soon as I feel a little bit anxious, relaxing for a couple of minutes, and then going just as near as I was to them before again, till I can do that without feeling anxious at all. Then I'll move on to imagining going a bit nearer them and doing the same thing.
Eventually, I'll probably be able to imagine even touching most of the animals without feeling anxious at all.
And then, being around them for real might not make me anxious at all.
If I still think I need to go near the animals for real after that though, I could relax and think of nice images for several minutes before the times when I do that, like places I'd enjoy being.
If I'm feeling nervous before I do my exposure therapy for real, maybe it would help to relieve my tension if I tried to think up funny things about the animals my phobias are of before I do my practises, like imagining birds singing pop songs, or spiders practising doing gymnastics in a miniature gym to music that's all speeded up, or dogs running round in tiny circles chasing their tales because they've got sausages attached to them and they want to get them, or walking around wearing hats and clothes.
If I do still need to do some exposure therapy, I'll try to plan how to do my desensitisation to the animals I've got phobias of as comfortably as I can, so the fear I feel when I'm being exposed to the animals in the exposure "therapy" doesn't itself become one of my most distressing experiences.
I've heard that when we're planning our desensitisation, what we're supposed to do first is make an "exposure hierarchy", as psychologists call it, one for each phobia, or one for the phobias combined. It's a list of situations we fear being in, from the most frightening to the least.
And then we're supposed to put ourselves in a position where we'll experience every situation on the list in turn, starting with the thing we're least afraid of, and working up to eventually experiencing what we're most afraid of. And it's supposed to help us realise that we don't have to be scared of these things after all, because the more used to being in the situations we are, the less anxious we'll supposedly be. So if we start off by being afraid of the thing on our list that makes us least anxious, but then we stop being afraid of it after we've got used to it, we'll be encouraged to know that that will probably happen with the others as well, and maybe we won't be as scared of them as we thought we would be when we come to desensitise ourselves to them, because we've been gradually getting used to them by getting closer and closer to them.
I'll think of what would be on my lists if I made them. I've heard that one way of doing them is to put about ten to fifteen items on the lists, and give each item a number from 0 to 100, according to how frightening we'd find it, with 100 being as frightening as it could possibly make us, and 0 being where we weren't scared at all.
It might well be easier to work out what number to give each situation if we think about past experiences we had of each one and remember how frightened they made us. I've heard that it can sometimes be difficult to give them numbers, but they only need to be estimates, and once we've thought of one, we can get some idea of what the others ought to be by imagining how frightening they might be in relation to the one we've already thought of.
I'll think about the most frightening situation I've ever been in as being near 100. They say it's best to put something last on the list that's only about 30, since we need to start off encountering things that don't scare us that much, but are still a bit of a challenge. Then we need to work our way up to doing more difficult things.
I've heard that we should think of the lists as being like wish lists of things we'd like to do if we didn't have our phobias. As well as things that have scared us in the past, we could put things on a list that we've never done before, but that we'd like to do to prove to ourselves that we've overcome our fear, and things we'd just like to do in life.
I've heard that we don't have to list every situation where the things we've got the phobia of make us scared, just typical situations we might be in. Then when we're not anxious about those any more, we probably won't be anxious about encountering what we're afraid of in other situations.
I think it'll be best if I can find people to help me with this. Like if I plan to be near a dog, I'd like someone to hold it on a lead for me, to make sure it doesn't come any closer until I'm happy for it to do that. I'll have to think about that.
When we're thinking of what to put on each hierarchy list and whereabouts to put things, we can first just list things in the order we think of them rather than the order we think they should go on the list, and not worry about how many there are. We can just list situations that make us fearful at first, situations we'd like to feel comfortable in but don't. We can write the lists in a notebook that we use as a journal.
I think I'll think about overcoming my dog phobia first. It would be nice to be able to walk down the street or in the park and not have to worry about whether a dog's coming. Maybe I could write down things on my list of frightening things I want to stop being scared of like:
I'll call that the first draft of my exposure hierarchy list.
When we're deciding what order to put things in, they advise us to write a second list of things that bother us about the animal, taking into account things like:
Actually, I am more scared by big dogs than smaller ones, and I am more scared when they're moving energetically than when they're sitting quietly, and when they're barking. And the closer they are to me, the more I'm frightened. So I'll put things like that on the next list I write. OK:
I'll call that my anxiety-making factors list.
We can decide what to put on the final version of our exposure hierarchy list by thinking of each thing we put on our draft exposure list, and thinking about how to make experiencing it more or less frightening by including more or fewer of the things we decided on our anxiety-making factors list that would make it more or less scary. The way we can include them is that when we put a feared situation from the draft list on the final hierarchy list, we can specify things from the anxiety-making factors list that we think we ought to include in the experience of encountering it, like what position we think it ought to be in; whether we think it ought to be moving or not; whether we think it ought to be big or small, etc.
We can decide whereabouts on the list to put each item by giving it a fear rating, according to how scared we think we'll be when we're exposed to it, from 0 to 100.
So we might end up with lots of things on our final list, or just the fifteen, but in more detail than they were at the beginning.
But the phobic hierarchy is only meant to be a basic thing; we can work up to doing each thing on the list in stages, doing lots of easier things before doing each one if we like, planning some of it as we go along.
That's good. Otherwise, it would seem a bit daunting to do these things straight off.
Maybe for my phobia of dogs, I could have on my final hierarchy list:
I'll remember that When we do our exposure therapy, we're supposed to work up to some or all of the things on the list in stages, rather than just sticking to doing the things on the list.
So, for instance, if I wrote the word dog a few times and was happy with that, I could write the words fierce dog before going on to the next thing on my exposure hierarchy list, if I thought I wasn't quite ready for it yet.
Or before looking at a picture of a fierce dog, I could look at pictures of other dogs, or have someone hold a picture of a fierce-looking dog several feet away and gradually bring it closer and closer.
I could do more than one thing on my exposure hierarchy list in the same session if I liked, like first looking at a picture of a fierce-looking dog, and then touching the picture of it, or first standing a few feet away from a puppy on a lead, and getting closer and closer and closer gradually, and then managing to touch it.
After I'd done that, I could touch it repeatedly till I could keep my hand on it without being afraid, and then try to bring myself to hold it.
Then, if I didn't feel too bad, I could hold it till my fear went down.
Or if my fear was too much for me to cope with, I could give it back to someone for a while and try holding it again when my fear level went down.
At any stage of the process of getting closer to it, touching it and then holding it, if my fear level went too high for me to feel I could handle it, I could go back to just standing near it, and then get closer and closer to it again when my fear had gone down.
Maybe I can try that a few times till I don't feel fearful while holding it if I need to.
When it gets to the more challenging things on the list, the same things would apply. So when I was doing my task of standing on one side of a fence with a big dog on the other, I could start off by standing several feet away, and get gradually closer and closer, or someone on the other side of the fence could first hold the dog several paces back from the fence, and gradually walk closer and closer with it. And if I feel my fear rising high, I could either tell them to stop right there while I put up with my fear till it decreases, which it might in a few minutes, or I could get them to step back a bit, or walk further away myself to a place where my fear has decreased, and stay there till I feel like trying to get closer again.
Maybe sometimes it'll take a few tries, but hopefully I'll feel less anxious with each one, or after a few, I won't feel so bad.
As for walking along a street with an unfamiliar dog on a lead walking right behind me, the person with it could first hold it several paces behind me, and gradually bring it closer and closer, depending on how happy I was with each stage of its getting closer. If I got too unhappy with it, they could always hold it further back for a while.
I think we'll have to find some quiet streets to practice that on. If we decided on a quiet street, I could keep walking up one side of it, crossing the road and walking back down the other side.
If I was happy to carry on after the dog was walking right behind me, I could go straight on to standing next to the dog, and then even patting and stroking it in that same session if my anxiety wasn't too bad.
It may be that it'll take more than one session to make that much progress, but it might not.
If my anxiety does get really bad, I could always walk away from the dog a bit while someone's holding it, till my anxiety decreases.
One thing I know that's very important is that I don't leave altogether while I'm feeling at my most anxious, or I might not be able to face going back. So it's best to walk away a bit till the fear decreases, and allow it to stay at that level for a while, before going away or trying again.
They say it's good to carry our notebook with us, and in it, we can record our fear levels on the scale of 0 to 100 as they're going down, so we can be encouraged. So if we write down at the start that just being in a room with a dog gives us a fear level of 80, but we look at the notebook after the session and read that over the space of half an hour it went down to only about 40, we'll be encouraged by how much progress we've made. Or if we know that when we first touched a puppy, our fear level went up to 75, but then half an hour later, we could touch it with only a fear level of 30, we'll be pleased, and hopefully motivated to carry on. So it might help to record our fear levels when we start an exposure session, and every five minutes or so till we finish it.
When I do the thing where I let the lively dog bound around me and jump up at me, I could start by having someone play games with it that make it lively several feet away from me, and I could gradually walk closer and closer to them. It would have to be an obedient dog, so if it tried to run too close to me, it would go back to the person it was with if they called it. I could watch it jump up at them first before I let it do that to me. Then maybe I could start playing games with it that started off quite calm and got more and more lively, till it got to the point where it was lively enough to jump up at me. But it would have to be obedient enough so if at any time I felt too anxious and needed a break, or wanted to calm things down a bit again, the person with me could call it and give it commands to calm down, and it would stop what it was doing.
I'm hoping that after I've done the things I'm thinking of doing in my exposure therapy in my imagination before I do them for real, imagining feeling confident while I'm doing them, it won't be so frightening when I do them in reality.
Maybe for the most difficult thing on my list, where I knock on the door of a house where there's a dog, and I won't know what it's going to do when it comes out, I could watch someone else doing it a few times first.
Then I could knock on the door and listen to the dog barking, but know the owner wouldn't open the door that time, because we'll have agreed to just talk to each other through it, or that they'll know it's me so they won't come to it.
Then I could practice where they come out, but they're holding the dog on a lead, and I'm standing several steps away.
And we could practice that a few more times with me standing closer and closer, till I was happy for us to practice with them opening the door and letting the dog come out on its own in front of them.
I'll have to find people who are patient to help me with things like that.
If I feel too scared while I'm getting closer to an animal, I can always have a break for a while. I'll step back from it till my fear level decreases to manageable levels, and then I'll do something different for a few minutes. I can satisfy myself with the thought that in an hour or two, my exposure practice will be finished, and then I can do something I enjoy. I'll plan to do things beforehand that I know I'll like, so I can look forward to them during the time I'm practising getting over my phobia.
I think I might buy some nice big cakes that I'll plan to eat one of each time as a reward after each exposure practise, and I could buy some comedy tapes beforehand and decide which ones I like best, and then sit and relax with them afterwards. Maybe I could invite a friend around some evenings.
Every time I take a break from getting nearer and nearer the animal because it's scaring me too much, I can do some things to relax myself, like breathing slowly and steadily for a while. That's what I did on that farm. I've just read something that recommends that type of breathing, suggesting we breathe slowly in through the nose to the count of four, and then out slowly through partly closed lips to the count of four. And it recommends we carry on doing that for a few minutes.
I can try to make sure I'm breathing slowly enough by saying something in between each number I count, like rhinoceros. I don't think I'm scared of those, so it's allright. So I'll be saying to myself, "One rhinoceros; two rhinoceros; three rhinoceros; four rhinoceros." [and then breathing out] "One rhinoceros; two rhinoceros; three rhinoceros; four rhinoceros."
I'll practise this slow breathing before I do my exposure practises to get used to it.
In fact, I'll start today. I'll have a go for a few minutes every day.
When I found myself doing slow breathing when our school went to that farm, I didn't know it was official advice. So I'm glad I was doing something that turned out to be recommended by experts.
I could try it when I'm near the animals during my exposure practises as well as when I'm having a break.
But I think I'll probably sit down at the start of my break if there's somewhere to sit, or stand if there isn't, and concentrate on it more.
I could have breaks for several minutes if I'm getting really anxious, calm myself down, and then go back to the desensitisation.
After a minute or two of some of my breaks, I could start day-dreaming about what I'm planning to enjoy when I've finished my exposure practise for the day, imagining enjoying it as vividly as I can. I can reassure myself that in an hour or two, I expect to be doing it, so I haven't got all that long to put up with this exposure practise.
Then I could encourage myself by thinking about how much progress I'm making, and being pleased with myself for what I've already achieved, and thinking about how good it is that it shouldn't be that long till I'm over my phobia altogether.
Then I could have a think about all the things I'll be able to do when I get over it, imagining enjoying doing them.
Then after I've encouraged myself and I'm feeling more relaxed, I'll get back to my exposure practise.
When I'm sitting down or standing back from the animal trying to relax, I'll try to help myself relax by making sure my body's not tense. I'll sit back in my seat if I'm sitting, make sure my fists aren't clenched and my shoulders aren't hunched up, and uncross my arms and legs.
Actually, I could do that kind of thing before I do my exposure practise each day as well. I could make sure my body's feeling relaxed, and try to think of nice things, like what I've planned after my exposure practise, and how nice it'll be when I've got over my phobia. Or maybe I could think of special places I've remembered being in the past, or moments of enjoyment I can remember, to relax me. I could spend about ten minutes trying to imagine nice things before my practises. Whenever I've got spare moments throughout the day, and anxious thoughts start coming into my mind, I'll try to think of hopeful ones instead, like day-dreaming about how nice it'll be to have a picnic with the family when I've got over my phobias, or imagining myself standing by a flowering bush not being that worried by the few bees, or playing with children in the park even if there are dogs and birds around. The more hope I have that this therapy will work, and the more I think about the benefits, the more enthusiasm I'll have about sticking at it till it's finished.
I think that before I do my exposure practises, I'll make up my mind to accept any anxiety that comes over me as natural, just the way my body's trained itself to deal with such things, nothing to worry about too much, just a mistake my body's going to make till it gets re-trained. If I get scared of the fear, it'll last longer. If I can try not to think of the anxiety as a threat to me, but just accept that it's going to happen because that's what my body thinks it needs to do, then it shouldn't be so frightening.
If I get scared, I won't think of it as a sign of weakness or assume it means my exposure therapy's going badly. If the anxiety subsides after a while, like psychologists tell us it should, then I'll be encouraged.
I think that every day before I imagine going near the animals, and then every day before I do the practises for real, before I try to relax, I'll do some exercises, to burn off nervous energy. Maybe I could run up and down the stairs a few times.
When I do the exposure therapy for real, I'm going to have to make sure that anyone who helps me agrees first that it's important that they don't try to make me expose myself to more fear than I feel I can handle at any given moment, or to get me to do anything I haven't agreed to do. I have to be the one in control of how much anxiety I allow myself to feel at any one time, and how quickly or slowly I do the exposure therapy. Because I'll be the one in control, at least I'll have that reassurance, and it'll only be as difficult as I'm willing to make it. I can increase or lessen my amount of anxiety at will, by getting closer or further away from the animals.
Well, I know animals have minds of their own, and can do unpredictable things people don't want them to do; but I'll try to arrange to work with obedient animals in the early stages, that will be mostly under the control of their owners so will do what they want.
I'm going to write an exposure hierarchy list of feared situations for all my phobias and then think about how to achieve the things on the list.
I think next, I'll do my spider phobia. That's especially unpleasant, because I can't avoid spiders even indoors.
Spider Phobia Hierarchy List:
I might be able to do several of the things on that list in one session. I could try touching all the pictures of spiders and toy ones in the same session, gradually moving from one to the other as I got happier touching them. Maybe before I touch the toy one, or more toy ones if we get them, someone else can hold them nearer and nearer me, while I tell them how that's affecting my fear rating, and they only bring them nearer when my fear rating goes down. Or if I decided I just didn't want to do any more half way through, I could go back to doing something I find less frightening for a while, and remind myself that I'm finding that less frightening, or even much less frightening, than I did when I started the session. Then I'll start feeling pleased with my progress, and we could maybe have a break. Or we could end there for the day, and I could maybe start again where we left off the next day, or the day after.
Maybe I could do several bigger things in one session as well. So maybe I could start with a jar with a spider in it over the other side of the room from me, and someone could gradually bring it closer and closer, while I told them how anxious I was getting and asked them to stop or go back a bit if I got too anxious. Maybe they could tie a piece of paper round the top of the jar with small holes pierced in it to make sure the spider could breathe all the way through the session, rather than having a lid on it.
If I'm feeling up to it in the same session after I've been holding the jar, I could move back several paces while someone tips the spider out of the jar into a bigger container, and then I could gradually come forward and put my hand in it as well. It might take several tries before I'm happy to leave my hand in there with the spider for more than a split second, but hopefully I'll have the courage to persevere, knowing that it doesn't matter if I take a while to manage it. People usually do take time.
Then I could maybe try touching it with something, like the end of a pencil. If that makes me really scared, I could just stop and draw back to a few feet away from it, and see if my anxiety levels go down. If they do, I might be able to congratulate myself that I'm feeling much less anxious than I would have been if I'd tried to stand that close to the spider at the start of the session. So even though I didn't manage to touch the spider for more than a split second, I'll still be pleased with myself and able to give myself encouraging thoughts.
And then after several minutes, I might feel brave enough to try touching the spider with the pencil again. Or I might stop the session at that point. But at least if I do stop it, I'll still have all the encouraging thoughts in my head about how far I've come.
If I carry on the session, it might take a few more tries till I can touch the spider with only a manageable level of anxiety. But when I can, I'll think of it as a real achievement.
Someone will have to have tried to stop the spider escaping all that time, maybe by gently pushing it down if it tries to climb up the container.
After I've touched the spider with a pencil or something, I could try touching it with my finger. It might take a few tries before I'm happy with that.
But when I can do it without feeling too bad, I could try holding the spider in my hand. I could hold it inside the container, so I can just flick it out of my hand into the container if holding it makes me too anxious.
I could always step back for a while again if I think my anxiety levels are becoming unmanageable, and then they'll probably go down, and I can encourage myself again by reflecting on what progress I've made so far. Then I could try it again.
After several tries, I'll hopefully be able to hold the spider in my hand without dropping it back in the container again. Then, I can really be pleased with myself.
At the end of every session, I'll encourage myself by writing in my notebook all the steps towards progress I've made, so I'll be reminded of how far I've come in a short time. So I'll write down everything I ended up managing to do without much anxiety in the end that I'd have been scared to do before.
On the other hand, I know fear can take a while to go down sometimes, so I won't develop any expectations about how quickly I think it will go down. Then if it goes down quickly sometimes, I can be pleasantly surprised. If my fear isn't going down, I could go back to trying easier things for a while, till I'm more confident about doing the more difficult ones.
When I try the exposure therapy with my phobia of bees, it'll be nice to know that psychologists don't recommend we try to touch or hold those, or that anyone tries to catch them.
It might only take a few days to get over one phobia. It'll be good if it does. But it might take a bit longer.
Since the sessions will be long, maybe I could take some time off work to do them. I could spend some time at weekends as well. It just means finding a helper who's willing to take time out from what they're doing to help me, unless I can work out a way to do this on my own. It would be easier with someone else.
I think it would be best to find someone who'd be willing to help me with this, because they can give me emotional support, help get the materials I need like pictures and the plastic spider, help prepare things, and give me any help I need during my exposure practices. And they could provide an example for me to try to follow of what someone without a phobia might do in a given situation. I'm not sure I'll be able to find a helper, but I'll think about it. I'd prefer it to be a friend. It would have to be someone who knows about my phobia already and who sympathises, because I'd be ashamed of showing fear of things that most people aren't frightened of if I couldn't guarantee they'd be sympathetic. I'll have to make sure it's someone who'll be patient if I can't bring myself to do some of the things on my list at first or decide to escape, and who won't get annoyed or try to hurry me up, or imply that I'm making more fuss than is reasonable, or joke about it.
It's allright for people who aren't scared of these things! I remember being invited to stroke someone's pet dog once, and I thought I'd be able to manage it; but when I got closer, I decided I just couldn't after all. And instead of asking what was bothering me, they just called me stupid, which wasn't very helpful. I wouldn't want someone like that. Maybe if I can get someone who's had a phobia themselves, they'd be more understanding.
But it'll have to be someone who doesn't have any fear of the animal I'm scared of themselves. And it'll have to be someone who's prepared to take as much time as it takes me to complete the practices, and to take the time to collect the things I'll need in the first place.
I heard about someone whose wife helped him overcome his fear of dogs. One of the things he wanted to do was to be able to stand close to one, so his wife held the neighbour's friendly poodle on her lap while he slowly came nearer and nearer, one step at a time. He started 30 feet away, and with each step closer he took, he first felt more anxious, but then he waited there till his anxiety went down, and then he took another step closer. Each time, he started off by feeling more anxious every time he took a step closer, but then his anxiety went down, so he had the courage to go another step closer. It took two hours, but at the end of it, he could stand beside the dog with only a small amount of fear.
One thing that helped him during that time was when his wife asked him what anxious thoughts he was having, and he said he was worried that the dog might suddenly move and bite him; but when his wife asked how likely he thought that was to happen, he concluded that it wasn't that likely to happen really, because he knew it was a friendly dog, and that made his anxiety go down. He found her questions helpful, because they encouraged him to challenge his anxious thoughts.
Another thing he wanted to be able to do was to stroke dogs without being frightened, so on another day, his wife held the dog again, and first she stroked its back, and then he copied her. They did that over and over again until he could stroke its back with his fear level being below 30 on the 0 to 100 scale. Then, they did the same process again, with her stroking the dog and him copying, but she got nearer and nearer to touching and patting its head, which was the thing he was scared of doing most, but his anxiety went down as he copied her. He was more comfortable about stroking the dog after she showed him how she went about it, and he found it encouraging that she could stroke it without any fear.
Well, if someone can be much less fearful about standing next to a dog within the space of two hours, this is worth trying.
I'll ask someone if they can try to find pictures of the animals I'm afraid of for me. Maybe they could find some in books from the library, or in a children's book shop, or from calendars, or on the Internet. I think there are lots of websites with pictures on them in different categories on the Internet.
If colour photos are too difficult for me to look at at first, someone helping me could photocopy them so they get copied in black and white, so I could look at those before the coloured ones.
Maybe they could get toy things like plastic spiders from a toy shop.
They could try to find videos with animals in them from a video rental shop, or we could ask around to see if friends have got any. Or maybe my helper could video some themselves in the neighbourhood or at a pet shop, or one of us could video some on television, maybe from nature programmes.
We could see if anyone's got any friendly pets they could let us use. Some people might have birds in cages we could borrow, or dogs they wouldn't mind us having around the place for a while. or maybe we could go to their house.
Maybe it would be worth asking the manager of a pet shop if we can borrow an animal from there, or ask if they'd mind staying on for an hour or so after it's closed if we pay them. The trouble is, that risks making my exposure practice a bit too public. But maybe they let people rent birds and perhaps other things for a while. We could always find out.
And we could go to a park to see birds and dogs as well after a while. I don't suppose we'd get close to little birds in the park, because they normally fly away when people try that, but pigeons come close if there's food around. Maybe one of the last things I try when I do my exposure practice with birds could be feeding pigeons. It would be nice to think I could be confident about doing that instead of scared.
Maybe my helper can look for spiders in the garden, or in a cupboard under the stairs or the loft. They'd have to make sure any they found outside are harmless, maybe by reading up on spiders beforehand to know which ones the harmless ones are. Actually, I don't think there are dangerous ones here.
Maybe they can get some spiders from college or university biology departments. It's worth enquiring.
Maybe biology or psychology departments would have rats as well in cages that they don't need. Or maybe we could ask at a pet shop if we can rent a rat, or find someone with a pet rat we can borrow. Trying to catch wild ones wouldn't be a good idea, because they might be carrying disease or be more likely to bite us.
Maybe as part of my exposure practice with bees, we could eat a meal outside a cafe or something.
I'll write down a list of all the things I think I'll need for my exposure practices, and write down all the places I can think of that we could try getting them from, as well as all the places I think we might need to go to do the practices.
We wouldn't have to get all the things all at once. I'll just do things gradually at my own pace, and we can get things as we need them.
I can choose how quickly to do the exposure therapy. I've heard there are advantages doing the desensitisation slowly, and advantages with going faster. Going slowly, it would take longer to get over my phobias, but at least I'd be experiencing less intense fear while I was doing it. But if I did go quite fast, but then found my fear was too intense for me to cope with, I could always go back to doing easier things for a while. Then the worse things might not seem so difficult when I'm more used to easier things. If I try to go fast and see major improvements quickly, I will be more encouraged and pleased than if the improvements are only slow. I'll have to think about it. The important thing is that I keep trying to do increasingly more difficult things until doing them just doesn't bother me much any more.
If I start feeling confident that I could do the things at the bottom of my lists that wouldn't bother me as much as the rest without feeling any significant discomfort, I could always start a bit higher up if I wanted. I don't know if I'll do that.
I think it's going to be important to set times in advance to do my exposure practices, rather than waiting till I feel like it. Otherwise, I might just keep putting it off and putting it off and never get around to it. And it'll be more convenient for my helper if I set a time as well. I'll try and reach an agreement with them about what times would be best for both of us.
I've heard that one thing that can make exposure practices less effective is if the animals do unpredictable things that startle people with phobias. I think to start off with, I'll try to make sure that any animal I work with has a calm nature, or is restrained, like a dog on a lead or a bird in a cage. Well, I've already thought about how that would be better.
But later on, I'll hopefully be happier with animals on the loose or ones that'll be more lively and noisy, so I'll want to practice with those instead.
I've heard that it's important that the exposure practices are long enough so our anxiety goes down, because if we leave when we're at our most anxious, we might never want to go back, and we'll think there's no way we can overcome our phobia using that method. So it's best to stay with the animal, although we can decrease our fear by going further away from it. They say it's best to stay with the animal for at least an hour, preferably an hour and a half or two hours, because by that time, our fear will likely have subsided, so we'll realise we can be around it without being terrified after all.
They say it's best to schedule our exposure practices close together, preferably every day, because if they're spread out, each new practice will feel as if we're starting all over again. But if we do them closer together, we might be able to begin where we left off before, being able to do things we were scared of before but got over in the last practice without it bothering us much at all. So if we can't practise every day, we should at least try to practise several times a week, at least at the beginning.
And when we're a lot better, it'll still be a good idea to do some exposure practices from time to time, just to make sure our fear doesn't come back. It won't matter if they're more spread out, and they'll be much easier, because they won't be like doing them when we had the phobias.
We're supposed to cut down the amount of times we do things to make ourselves feel safer when an animal we fear's nearby, things which are really part of the avoidance strategy that keeps us thinking we need to avoid what we're afraid of or do things to protect ourselves from it, because it's too scary not to. They say it doesn't matter if we still do them at first, but we should cut them down. So that would include things like:
Yes, I do some of those. I'll cut down gradually. The less frightened I become of animals, the less I'll want to do them anyway.
They say we should try to encounter the animal we're afraid of in a wide variety of situations we feared before. So if we've been scared to go into parks in case there's a dog or birds there, we should go in there as part of our treatment, so hopefully we'll end up much less scared of parks as well as dogs. And the same with other things, like walking around the streets near our home, going into pet shops, and visiting friends with pets when we used to make excuses not to go to their houses before.
So we could take an animal to several different places where we have been scared to go before, and also work with several different animals with different temperaments, in case we get comfortable with one dog but are still scared of all other dogs, for example.
They do warn us not to do anything that could be genuinely dangerous, anything that someone without a phobia wouldn't even be likely to do, like handling a species of spider that might be dangerous, or a dog that's known to have bitten someone.
They say we should make sure that the animals we practice with are happy being around people, in case they get scared and become aggressive. And if it's someone's pet, it might be best if the owner's around, so the animal's reassured.
They say we can end our treatment when we can do the most frightening things on our hierarchy lists without it bothering us that much. We should be happy handling the animals, like having a spider crawling on our hand, hugging a friendly dog, or whatever. Even if we don't think we'll do those things in everyday life, it can still be useful to know we could do them in our exposure therapy without being particularly scared, because then we'll have challenged any remaining beliefs that the animals are more dangerous or hostile than they are that might make us start wanting to avoid them again and getting more fearful. And the more we know we can do, the less frightened we'll be of the animals afterwards, and the more confident we'll be that we'll be able to get rid of any fear again if a bit of it ever comes back.
Actually, this whole idea does scare me. I know it'll be good to get over my phobias, because I'd hate any children I have to pick them up from me. And my life is quite limited now because I can't go out with friends to many places, and I'm scared to go in certain rooms in the house sometimes if I think a spider might be in there. I am relieved at the time when I avoid things I'm afraid of, but I'm sure it just reinforces the idea that these things need to be feared, so it makes me even more scared of them.
I'll have to remember that at least with my exposure practices, I'll be the one in control. At least that'll be some reassurance. I'll be able to control what times I do the exposure practices, where I do them, how quickly I get closer to the animals, which animals I use for my practices, and when I end the practices. And I mustn't forget that I can take breaks to relax, at least as much as I can relax with animals around, and to day-dream about what I'm going to do in an hour or two when the therapy sessions have finished, and what I'll do when I've got over my phobias, and to congratulate myself on the progress I've made so far.
Anyway, I'll try other techniques to get over my phobias before doing the exposure therapy, to see if they diminish or get rid of my fear.
Fear is faith that it won't work out.
--Sister Mary Tricky
I'll be really pleased when my phobias have gone. But I'm going to have to make plans for how to deal with them if they ever come back, or if some of my fear returns. I know about some of the things that could lead to some of the fear coming back:
I've learned a bit about how to deal with each situation:
If I have a traumatic experience in the future with an animal, like if I get bitten by a dog, I know that my phobia could return and be as bad as it ever was. But at least I'll know how to deal with it from what I did that worked the last time. So I can deal with it more quickly, because I won't have to search around for what works before I start trying to get rid of it. So I'll start challenging anxious thoughts again, relaxing and imagining I can go near animals without being afraid, and maybe think out a new exposure hierarchy to do. If my fear went down quite quickly in the end the last time, I'll be reassured by knowing that it might be easier than I think to get rid of the phobia, so maybe I'll be more relaxed about it, and that might make it go quicker.
I'll do the same things if I worry that my phobia's coming back if I have an unexpected fear reaction to an animal, like if I find myself near one unexpectedly and it takes me by surprise. I won't have to worry that my fear will take as long to go away again as it did the first time. I know it'll be important not to worry too much, or to blame myself, because that'll just make me feel worse, and more stress will make it worse.
I know it's important to deal with the anxiety as soon as possible, because if I don't, it might get worse and worse over time. I might not have to go through a whole exposure hierarchy again like I did the first time. Maybe just a few exposure tasks would get me back on the right track. The less I worry that it's returning, the easier it'll be to deal with.
I know my fear might return if I didn't practice with enough variety when I did my exposure therapy. For instance, if I only practiced with one dog or in one place, I might still experience fear with other dogs or in other places. Or if I didn't go far enough up on my exposure hierarchy, like if I didn't practice with animals running loose, or handling the safe ones I had phobias of, the fear might return when I encounter them. I'll have to make sure I practice in challenging situations. Or I might have to develop a broader exposure hierarchy at a later time with more variety and more difficult things on it.
If I don't see much of an animal for some time after I've got rid of my phobia of it, so I don't very often have the opportunity to get reassured that I can cope perfectly allright in its presence, my fear might get worse and worse again. So I'll have to make sure I plan encounters with it every so often, or at least do something like that to keep my fear levels down, and I mustn't start using the old behaviours I used to use to protect myself, that used to make me feel better in the short term, but really just increased my feeling that there's something to be frightened of, like crossing the road every time I see someone with a dog.
I've heard several suggestions as to what people can do to keep themselves familiar with what they were once afraid of, so fear doesn't start building up again, like:
I've heard that things that have been problems for people in the past, like depression, alcoholism, insomnia and other things, as well as phobias, can return when people are experiencing more stress than usual because of life circumstances. If my phobias come back when I'm stressed, I must make sure I don't start avoiding the animals again, or that'll just increase my belief that I need to be afraid of them, even though the avoidance might be a relief in the short term. If I can stand up to my fears, I can at least be sure they'll go away again as my stress decreases; and I can do everything I can think of to do to sort out other things causing stress in my life so they stop being problems if possible.
If I notice my fear gradually returning, I'll try to catch it before it gets any worse and do something about it. It'll probably be helpful to work out what's causing it to come back, like maybe I'll have started thinking anxious thoughts again after reading a newspaper article or watching a television programme, or I might be under a lot of stress from other things in my life.
Also, if I notice I'm thinking the same kind of thoughts that I think helped condition my brain to develop the phobias in the first place, I'll have to stop myself thinking them and try to focus my thoughts on other things instead, or challenge their validity.
But I think it's very important to keep in mind that my fear might not get worse. It'll really worry me if every time I experience a twinge of fear, I start thinking it's bound to get worse. It might not. I might never have any phobias again. Just because I feel a bit of fear, it doesn't mean I'll get a full-blown phobia back if I don't deal with it.
I'll do my best to get rid of any fear I do get back, using the techniques that have worked in the past, but I'm not going to start worrying that I'll get a full-blown phobia back if I'm not careful or if I feel a little bit of fear on occasions. My phobias might never come back.
There may be things I anticipate doing in the future that I know might bring back fear symptoms; for instance, if someone invites me to their house, but I know they've got an exotic bird or a type of dog I've rarely seen before, and I've never practiced with it in my exposure therapy, and I know they let it run loose, so I won't be in control of the situation. I think if that happens, I'll read up as much about that kind of animal as I can on the Internet or in the library. Then I'll know as much as possible about what to expect.
And if I catch myself having anxious thoughts, I'll challenge them like I did with the others, thinking things like:
And I could invent other questions like that.
I could let the person know I used to have an animal phobia and I'm a bit anxious, so she can hopefully get her pet under control if it starts to misbehave. And I can challenge anxious thinking all the time while I'm there if I have some.
I'll try to think of it as a beneficial experience, like another dose of exposure therapy that will end up with me being less anxious about being around such things. While I'm there, if I can tell my fear level's going down, I could actively approach the pet to talk to it or touch it if it's a dog and it's well-behaved. Or if my fear increases, I'll know to move away. I could keep assessing my fear by rating it on the scale of 0 to 100 in my mind, so I can tell how confident I am at any given time, to help me decide when to go nearer it and when it's best not to.
Afterwards, when I come home again, I'll ask myself what I learned from the experience about how well I use coping strategies, and the best ones to use. Even if I think I did something wrong, it'll just help me decide what not to do next time.
Or if I plan to go somewhere where I know I might encounter things I didn't practice much with, like more big dogs running around than I ever envisaged I'd meet when I did my exposure practices, I could do some more practices before I go, where I do desensitise myself more to big dogs running loose. I'll think about where would be a good place to find some.
If I do get a bit scared, I'll at least be encouraged by knowing how much better I am now than I used to be, and that will encourage me to know I can get over this. And I'll just accept the fear as something my body mistakenly thinks it needs to do for me, that will subside if I just accept it and let it pass. I could help it along on its way by doing that slow, steady, controlled breathing.
I think I'll think through as many things as I can think of that might trigger off fear symptoms again, and work out how I'd tackle them, like making action plans. I'll write down everything I decide would be good to do in my notebook, so I can be encouraged that if my fear symptoms do come back, I'll just have to look at the notebook to remind myself of what to do. I'll know I won't be at a loss, totally taken by surprise. I think that'll give me more confidence about facing new situations.
There are several things I can look forward to now I've got strategies for overcoming these phobias. I'm fairly confident I'll manage to get over them. And then, I'll go out with friends more. I'll think again about places I'd like to go. And it'll be such a relief to know any children I have won't learn the phobias from me. I'll be proud of these achievements.
This article is written slightly differently from most articles. All the information in most of the articles in this series is written as if by someone finding out a lot of helpful information for the first time, just learning about it. That person themselves isn't real; they're just a representative of a lot of others suffering the same thing. The article comes with a very short story about them to set the scene, and presents all the self-help information as if it's what they're finding out and what they think of it.
Many of the things the person who this article's written from the point of view of describes near the beginning might not tie in with your experiences at all because they're personal experiences; but some of the things might strike a chord with you and help you get insight into your own phobias. Having said that, it's not necessary to read the first part to get the full benefit of the self-help information in this article.
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Michelle's suffering because she's developed several phobias. She's scared of dogs, birds, rats, spiders and bees. She doesn't really know why. She's had hang-ups and minor fears about them since she was little, but most of them developed into full-blown phobias when she was a teenager.
Now, she even has trouble getting up the courage to leave her house sometimes, because she's scared of encountering what she's afraid of. She doesn't like to go to the park in case there's a dog there. She makes excuses not to go to some of her friends' homes, because they have pet dogs. She's too scared to eat in the garden or go for picnics with friends or family in case a bee comes near her. And she feels panicky if there are birds around.
She doesn't even feel safe inside her house sometimes, because every now and then, she'll suddenly find a spider she wasn't expecting to find, and immediately, horrible feelings of fear and disgust come on. She's even nervous about watching the television, in case it shows one of the animals she's afraid of unexpectedly.
If she sees an animal while she's out, she'll run away.
Michelle decides she has to get over her problem, because she wants to have children, and she's scared they'll see her running away from an insect or animal and pick up the fear from her, and she wouldn't want to inflict it on her worst enemy, let alone her children. She looks at information on the Internet, watches a few television documentaries, and reads a couple of self-help books. They give her some ideas about what to do. She's encouraged, so she tries to turn the ideas into plans for how to get over her fears.
She's helped by what she finds out, and in the coming weeks, her phobias begin to fade away.
Note that if you choose to try out some or all of the recovery techniques described in this article, they may take practice before they begin to work.
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