Fear of Flying, Snakes and Spiders: What You Can Do About Phobias
Phobias get a lot of mention in popular media - you've seen the movie character panic on a plane or run screaming from a snake. And there are lots of interesting articles about strange phobias like arachibutyrophobia, the fear of peanut butter sticking in your mouth, or nyctohylophobia, the fear of forests at night. The ways phobias are frequently portrayed in media can detract from the real pain and struggle that these experiences can cause. Phobia experiences can range from mild discomfort to full panic and there is often a significant cost: avoidance. If you experience a phobia you most likely avoid situations that could be valuable or meaningful to you. You stop flying, avoid natural settings, or stay away from crowds, and also stop living your life.
How do phobias happen?
Fear isn't necessarily a bad thing. If you're hiking and encounter a rattlesnake, fear is likely to be an appropriate response to the situation. The fear will motivate you to take steps to avoid the snake and keep yourself safe. Sometimes, however, we react in fear to situations that are far from life-or-death, situations that don't merit a fear response.
Often these fear responses are rooted in traumatic experiences. Perhaps as a child you were bitten by a spider. Or you were fine with flying until you experienced extreme turbulance on a plane three years ago. Sometimes it can be hard to make a direct connection with the object of a phobia - you just feel extreme fear even though you have never had an encounter with the object. In many instances, the memory of the traumatic event feels intrusive and vivid and you may feel like you have no control or ability to deal with it.
What can you do about phobias?
There are a number of ways to deal with phobias so that you experience less fear and can reengage in a life that is meaningful.
One of the most common ways to treat phobias is through progressive exposure to the feared object. Exposure therapy is exactly what it sounds like - a gradual, step-by-step exposure to fear inducing situations. So, if you fear snakes, you might start by talking about snakes, looking at pictures of snakes, etc. Then you might progress to seeing a live snake in a captive setting. Ultimately, you may determine the goal is to be able to handle a snake without fear.
Typically this exposure work is done with a therapist, who is providing support and practical tools for managing the fear and anxiety that is showing up. Mindfulness works well as a coping skill for addressing phobias, as does learning relaxation breathing, identifying negative thoughts that are problematic, and other techniques to help you cope with what you are experiencing.
Another useful approach for treating phobias is EMDR. An effective trauma therapy, EMDR (Eye Movement Densensitization and Reprocessing) works by reprocessing traumatic memories so that they are less intrusive and distressing. For phobias, this could mean addressing the original memory related to the fear, such as the encounter with the snake or the turbulent plane ride. Often individuals notice much less distress around the memory and an ability to engage with what was formerly feared with less anxiety.