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Phobias are no fun

Last week I said I would go into phobias more in this post, and I especially want to share with you a case where I am overcoming a phobia, and one that I have yet to challenge.

There are many people who cannot see the difference between healthy fear and a phobia. While there is a matter of degrees involved, phobias are more than just a strong fear.

According to the DSM V, phobia is marked fear or anxiety around specific situations or objects that is disproportionate to the danger imposed by those situations or objects. A chill of fear of being bitten by a black widow crawling up your arm would not qualify. But if, in the same situation, you are so afraid you start to sweat, shake, cry, and become paralyzed, that would be more in the vein of a phobia.

Despite what many people think, including fellow students in my Psychology degree program, phobias aren’t as easy to cope with as regular fears. I used to have a phobic response when people would be late without calling. It stemmed from when my father would just not show up for visits and never call or let me know what was going on. And even though I knew I was having an exaggerated response, the later it got, the more I spiraled, no matter how I tried to breathe through it. The fact that I dated a guy who would deliberately be late to try to “cure” me definitely didn’t help.

The first thing necessary to helping someone address a phobia is recognize it is not just a basic fear that they are choosing to “blow out of proportion”. In Maryland, the Bay Bridge has an area where people can pull over to let someone else drive them over the bridge. It’s not as though these people have driven a hundred miles or more to just go, “Screw it. I’m not a fan of driving over water. Let someone else do it.” I’ve made that drive, and I have no idea how I did it, other than I couldn’t see over the edge of the bridge to the water from where I was. If I had to do it today, even though I generally drive everywhere, I would probably let my husband do it so I could put my head down so I don’t see. When I had to drive to Children’s Hospital of Philly ever week, the trip over the Tidings just about killed me.

Last week I said I would go into phobias more in this post, and I especially want to share with you a case where I am overcoming a phobia, and one that I have yet to challenge. 

There are many, usually well-meaning, people who cannot see the difference between healthy fear and a phobia. While there is a matter of degrees involved, phobias are more than just a strong fear.

According to the DSM V, phobia is marked fear or anxiety around specific situations or objects that is disproportionate to the danger imposed by those situations or objects. A chill of fear at the thought of being bitten by a black widow crawling up your arm would not qualify. But if, in the same situation, you are so afraid you start to sweat, shake, cry, and become paralyzed, that would be more in the vein of a phobia.

Despite what many people think, including fellow students in my former Psychology degree program, phobias aren’t as easy to cope with as regular fears. I used to have a phobic response about people not showing for events. And sometimes it has bled over into people forgetting events or details I’ve told them. It stemmed from when my father would just not show up for visits and never call or let me know what was going on. And even though I’d know I was having an exaggerated response, the later it got, the more I spiraled, no matter how I tried to breathe through it. The fact that I dated a guy who would deliberately be late to try to “cure” me definitely didn’t help. 

The first thing necessary to helping someone address a phobia is recognize it is not just a basic fear that they are choosing to “blow out of proportion”. In Maryland, the Bay Bridge has an area where people can pull over to let someone else drive them over the bridge. It’s not as though these people have driven a hundred miles or more to just go, “Screw it. I’m not a fan of driving over water. Let someone else do it.” I’ve made that drive, and I have no idea how I did it, other than I couldn’t see over the edge of the bridge to the water from where I was. If I had to do it today, even though I generally drive everywhere, I would probably let my husband do it so I could put my head down so I don’t see. When I had to drive to Children’s Hospital of Philly ever week, the trip over the Tydings just about killed me. 

Unlike some fears, not all strong phobias are “cured” just with repeated exposure. I remember when I was little, one of the local stations had a documentary on snakes one night. In it, they followed a woman who went to a center that specialized in helping people overcome their phobias, part of which involved being introduced to snakes in a controlled setting. Note that these were controlled interactions. That doesn’t mean you pick up a snake in the woods or your pet in your living room and shove it at someone saying, “See?? He won’t hurt you!” 

As I said, my one ex-boyfriend thought he could “cure” my Athazagoraphobia (fear of being forgotten) by being progressively late to “teach me” that he would eventually show. The biggest problem, apart from the arrogance, was his decision to do this without my knowledge, and by extension, my consent. This is an integral part of the treatment plan. A person cannot be an unwilling participant in the proccess, and they cannot be forced or coerced into not feeling afraid. I would consider it daft to even consider intimidating someone out of their phobia, but I’m usually the weird one.

In my opinion, the role of dialectic therapy in the treatment of phobias in often overlooked lately. However, a good therapist will help you realize when you are ready to begin desensitizing through small, controlled exposures. They will not rush you into handling a python, petting a dog, or in my mom’s case, riding a horse. Just as with the steps I mentioned for handling your child’s fear or anxiety, there are often many things to be recommended before pushing them into the deep end.

I promised I would offer up two tales from my own experience. First, let me share the phobia I am in the process of taming – ophidiophobia. At around age 4, I watched what would be my favorite movie for a good long while, The Black Stallion. There is a scene where a shipwrecked Alec is stared down by, to my 4 year-old mind, a very big cobra. That scene, despite the subsequent arrival of The Black who kills the snake, scared me so bad that I had a significant phobia around snakes that was so strong I would go out of my way to avoid them when I bought supplies at the pet store. But as an equestrian, I would cross paths with black snakes and cotton mouths. Norwegian rats were big in our area, so you wanted the non-venomous snakes around. Hence why I watched the aforementioned TV program on snakes, myth and fact. Still, no power on Earth would compel me to touch a snake or get close enough to ID small ones.

Fast forward to two years ago. We moved to Raleigh, and I took my son to the Natural Science Museum. On the third floor is a whole wall that is all vivariums for? Snakes. Not wanting my son to grow up with my unhealthy terror for all things legless, I led him over and stood back while he looked them over. And I was trying to be terribly nonchalant because I didn’t want him to be afraid. He was thoroughly unimpressed and I let him wander off with my Mom while I hung back. And I just watched these snakes. (Not the diamondback rattler, though – don’t let’s be silly!) And a plan began to hatch in my brain. I brought us back the following week, and I spent over 30 minutes watching the snakes. (Not you, rattle boy!) I watched them chilling out, cruising through leaf litter, and there was even a reedy green vine snake climbing in his viv. My favorite was the little pygmy hog-nosed, so wee and chill. A close second was a pair of green tree pythons, completely and totally indifferent to people staring through the glass. Granted there was several inches of glass between us, but these weren’t the bad boys spoiling for a rumble that movies portrayed.

So, we moved to the next part of my plan to get over being terrified of snakes. I admit upfront that if I hadn’t studied phobias in college, I probably wouldn’t have attempted this. But I decided that to get over seeing snakes as villains, I would get a pet snake to built empathy towards them. So, I started by visiting pet stores to ask about the snakes they carried, because my biggest fear was being bitten, even by rear-fanged wee ones. I learned about ball pythons and colubrids like corn snakes, including what it looks like to be bitten by them. I researched for about a year, and got my family’s ok to get my own snake. 

Say “Hello!” to Cas, my first snake, a Mojave ball python. He has been wonderfully patient, and while I’m still not absolutely a pro at handling him, he suffers my slow movements and controlled breathing because I am the Lady High Mistress of the Rat Pups.

On the other hand, I’m not so inclined to address my worst phobia. You wouldn’t think a child of two pilots would be acrophobic, but here we are. First, I fell down the basement steps at age 3. Excellent start. And things were looking up when my class took a field trip to the Trade Center in Baltimore and my mom taught me, look out across the Bay, not down. But my father, ever not the sharpest of knives, decided to take me up in single engine, probably the Cessna, when I was about 9 or 10. And, in keeping with his tendency toward poor decisions, decided to tell his acrophobic daughter to look down, complete with steep bank turn. #SMH Unlike my ophidiophobia, my fear of heights is getting worse. I get tense on escalators, steep stairs, steep hills or mountain slopes in my car – good times. This largely stems from problems with vertigo that I had in my pregnancy with my second son that reinforced and expanded an already significant problem. I don’t even like getting on the second steps of our step stools. Good thing I married a tall husband.

If your child’s fears of the supernatural or other Halloween elements strays into the realms of phobia, particularly for younger children, seeking the help of a therapist would be most advantageous in helping them understand where it comes from and how to keep it from controlling their lives. Older children might have the self-awareness and self-regulation to attempt the sort of steps I took with snakes sooner rather than later, but the guidance of a mental health professional is still ideal to address the broader psychosocial effects of their phobia.

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