Coping With Phobias

Learning tips for coping with your phobias is an essential part of working through your fears. The types of strategies that may work for you will depend on several factors, including the type of phobia you struggle with and the severity of the phobia.

Working closely with your therapist can help you to develop a set of coping strategies that you can employ when most needed and can give you the support that will help you to face your phobias and ultimately work through them.

Tip One: Facing Your Fears

A person struggling with phobias will, naturally, do their utmost to avoid that which they fear the most. However, in order to successfully overcome the phobia, it is essential that you face your fears. This doesn’t mean that you need to dive right into being confronted by a pit of balloons if you have a fear of balloons! Just as total avoidance is less than effective, full frontal confrontation can be just as damaging.

Remember that the more you avoid your phobia, the bigger and the scarier it will become in your mind as your mind is then allowed to run away with your imagination!

Working closely with your trusted therapist, you will gradually learn to tolerate and expose yourself to those things that strike the most fear in you. Repeated exposure, done gently will allow you to confront your fear, confront your anxiety, and slowly gain more confidence about the situation. The phobia will start to lose the power that it has over you.

Here’s an example of how gradual exposure may work for you, and your fear of balloons. (Or dogs, cats, snakes, spiders, cars, etc.)

  1. Your first step is to view pictures of that which you fear the most. Pictures of balloons, for example, can help you to overcome your initial anxiety felt when you first spy a balloon.
  2. You should then watch a short video, or even music video, with balloons in it.
  3. Viewing balloons from a safe distance should be your next step. They could be in a window display or could be across the park from where you are seated.
  4. Gradually moving yourself closer to the balloons is going to be your next series of steps, taken as you feel most comfortable. Across the road, 10 meters, 5 meters, etc.
  5. You should end by standing directly next to an individual who holds the balloon, without fear and anxiety rushing through you. You may feel a little bit excitable, but that’s fairly normal and expected
  6. Holding the balloon, on your own, and being able to handle it without extreme terror and panic attacks is going to be your ultimate goal and one that you will gradually reach if you allow yourself to work at a steady pace of confronting your fears.

Consider this list as a “fear ladder” with the scariest actions being placed at the very tippy top of your ladder. The first few rungs on your ladder will be things that do make you a little bit nervous but not to the point where you are too afraid to attempt it. The items on the top of your list will be those things that you are simply too afraid to consider confronting at this point in time.

This type of list making can help you to gradually work through every situation that is associated with your phobia; effectively removing the fears, the fear of the unknown, and the anxiety that can accompany each phobia.

Practice confronting each and every step, or rung on your ladder, at a pace that works for you. Don’t rush yourself as this can quickly lead to you feeling overwhelmed and anxious.

Tip Two: Techniques For Relaxation

When you are faced with your phobias, you likely experience a series of physical symptoms that can make you feel even more anxious and afraid. By learning effective techniques for relaxation, you will be able to not only tolerate these physical symptoms, but you will be able to self-soothe yourself quickly to the point that you once again feel calm and in control.

Compare the two lists of physical reactions that you may see both when anxious and when calm and in control.

•    Your heart will pounding uncontrollably
•    Your muscles will tense up
•    You will start to take quicker breaths, almost to the point of hyperventilation
•    Your blood pressure will go up dramatically

Compare these negative and frightening physical reactions to how your body reacts when relaxed.

•    Your heart rate will be steady
•    Your muscles will be relaxed
•    You will be breathing at a steadier rate
•    Your blood pressure stabilizes

Practicing relaxation techniques is a powerful way to curb the physical symptoms that your phobias are inflicting upon you.

A Breathing Exercise

Deep breathing exercises can help you to regain control over your hyperventilating, heart-pounding body.

•    Sit in a comfortable chair, with your back upright against the chair’s back
•    Draw in a slow breath, counting to four, through your nose
•    Hold that breath in, counting to seven
•    Slowly but firmly exhale your breath through your mouth, counting to eight. Contract your abdominal muscles and exhale as much air as you can
•    Continue this inhale-exhale cycle as often as is needed for you to feel a lot calmer, centered, and relaxed
The more that you practice this relaxation technique, the better prepared you will be to utilize this method when you are faced with your phobias or are otherwise in a stressful situation.

Tip Three: Challenge Your Thoughts

Those who live with phobias tend to overthink their fears drastically. This means that they very often overestimate just how bad things will be if they are exposed to what they fear the most. The phobia then becomes this nameless, shapeless force that quickly dominates over your life and everything that you try to do.

Challenging your thoughts, and the way in which you approach your negative feelings about the phobia, can help you to better understand why you have this fear. The negative thoughts are generally unrealistic and do nothing but further add fuel to the furnace of your phobia.

Thoughts about phobias can often be categorized, which can also help you with the process of working through them. For example, there are the future predictions: “The dog is going to bite me.” Or “That person is going to make fun of me.” Then there are the overgeneralizations that can grow as much as your fear-fueled imagination allows them to. “A dog barked at me. All dogs are terribly aggressive and dangerous.” Or “That car is driving too fast. All drivers are dangerous; I can’t be on the road!”

The other category includes catastrophizing which means that even the slightest comment or thought can be blown up into a fear and anxiety-filled event. For example: “They turned on the fasten seatbelts sign. We’re going to crash!” Or “If I go on the highway, my car will be hit by a truck and we’ll all be horribly hurt!”

Working with your therapist can help you to come up with an effective strategy that will help you to confront and work through your negative thoughts.

Let’s take, as an example, the fear of a potentially aggressive dog. Look for evidence that contradicts your thoughts of “This dog is going to growl, attack, maul me, and I’ll wind up injured with rabies!”

•    Is the dog truly displaying signs of aggression?
•    Is the dog paying attention to you, or is it distracted by something else?
•    Is the dog on a leash firmly held by its owner?
•    Has this dog displayed aggression to any other people or dogs?

Then ask yourself what options you would have if the dog did decide to lunge towards you. What course of action could you take?

•    Could you politely ask the owner to take a firmer grip on the dog’s leash?
•    Could you remove yourself from the situation?
•    Could you defend yourself against the dog?

Is your line of thinking flawed? Do you have any evidence that this dog is going to attack you and aims to do you harm? Or are you predicting the future using fear-filled speculation? Think about what you may say to a close friend who is simply walking through the park and has a dramatic reaction to seeing a dog on a leash; would you tell them that the odds of the dog attacking them are very narrow? Would you tell them that their fears are unfounded and unrealistic, given that they have no evidence that this dog is aggressive?

Tip Four: Coping Statements

Working with your therapist, you can develop several positive coping strategies and reinforcing statements that will help you when you are confronted with your phobias. Some of these may include the following.

•    I have been in this situation before. It did not feel comfortable for me, but the feelings passed and I wasn’t harmed
•    If I have a panic attack, I can remove myself from the situation, use my breathing techniques, and refocus my mind until I am calm
•    I have been in dozens of elevators and have never once been in danger inside of one. Experience and statistics show that my fears of elevators are unfounded

It may take some time, and much practice, but you can learn how to cope with your phobias. Self-help tips, and working with your therapist, can help you to establish techniques that work best for you and your unique situation.