Dave is frightened of flying. In an airplane he gets nervous and thinks about the plane crashing.
Amy avoids going to the dentist. She becomes apprehensive, fears the pain and is embarrassed by her nervousness. She feels that she must do whatever the dentist says, whether she understands it or not.
John fears public speaking. He worries for weeks before a talk, can’t sleep the night before and rehearsing doesn’t help his confidence. He tries to get out of giving talks if at all possible.
These people suffer from phobias, irrational fears and avoidance of certain objects or situations. Phobias may be of places and things (such as heights), of people (such as social gatherings), or even of oneself (agoraphobia is a fear of one’s own feelings of anxiety).
Learning to Be Afraid
Phobias are irrational, which means people may be afraid even though the fear doesn’t make sense to them. For example, someone may fear a dog even though the dog acts tame and friendly.
Phobias frequently begin with a frightening experience. A child bitten by a dog, for instance, may fear dogs afterwards—at least temporarily. We also can learn to fear by watching bad things happen to others, and by being around people who are themselves fearful.
In general, avoidance and worry will increase the fear, while reassuring experiences will help a person become less fearful.
Phobias are among the easiest to treat of psychological problems. Even if the fear is severe, the treatment can be fairly brief. In fact, we often can reduce or eliminate a phobia ourselves if we go about it properly.
The two main principles of phobia treatment come from common sense notions. If you fall off a horse:
1. Get back on right away so you don’t develop a fear of horses; or
2. Practice approaching the horse and riding a little at a time to get used to it.
Learning to relax is an important part of overcoming a phobia. In fact, the best approach is to focus on staying relaxed while gradually
introducing the feared object or situation.
Helping ourselves to become more comfortable in a situation we fear provides reassuring evidence that the situation doesn’t control our feelings and that we have more control than we thought. Two very good relaxation techniques are deep slow breathing and muscular relaxation.
To use the breathing technique, breathe in for four seconds and out for the same amount of time. This will produce deeper, slower breathing than usual. Make sure the breath gets down to your belly. For muscular relaxation, check throughout your body for tight muscles and try to relax them. Tensing a tight muscle first can make it easier to relax.
A Fear Reduction Technique
Let’s see how we would apply these principles to overcoming a fear of snakes. You might start by looking at pictures of a snake. You may feel uncomfortable at first, but by doing it a little at a time, trying to stay relaxed and breathing regularly while viewing the picture, you usually will become accustomed to it after a while.
Once the picture can be viewed with little or no fear, the next step might be to look at a live snake in a cage. A further step might be to watch someone handle the snake, and then gradually begin touching and handling it yourself.
This step-by-step method works with most fears. But for situations that seem harder to approach in a gradual manner (such as flying in a plane), first practice by using imagery. Learning to imagine being in a feared situation while remaining calm can make us more calm when we are really in it.
To use imagery practice for fear of flying, we might start by imagining ourselves looking at an airplane. When that can be done calmly, we might imagine walking around in a plane while it is still on the ground. Further steps might include imagining taxiing and then level flight. Takeoffs and landings probably would be saved for last, since they are especially difficult for most people.
This self-help method works. There are many books available on how to overcome fears that discuss these and other methods in more detail. Check your local library or bookstore for titles and authors. However, for further help, a psychologist trained in the techniques of behavior therapy will be able to design an effective program.