Imprisoned by your phobias?

Phobias are the mountains we make out of molehill-sized fears. Learn how to conquer your Everest

Vector illustration of a man lock up in prison

Anju climbed 12 floors—when she was seven months pregnant. She was scared, a little of what her family would say if they came to know of this, more of the effects her action could have on the baby inside her, but most of the elevator.

For Anju, an elevator was a death trap. Every time she stepped into one, as the doors would slide shut, her mind would close in on her. All she could think about was being trapped inside, the walls closing in, the oxygen slowly depleting and her body being found when the doors were finally pried open hours later. Does not make sense? Well, phobias rarely do.

There are even stranger phobias. From Pogonophobia, a fear of beards to Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia which is, ironically, a fear of long words! Funny until you develop one.

Cause and effect

The cause of a phobia is not always known. Some are triggered by a disturbing incident [like being stuck in an elevator for a prolonged period in your childhood], some could be culturally suggested [a classic example being a rise in shark and water phobias after the movie Jaws], while some phobias have no apparent origin. If hypnotherapists and psychoanalysts like Dr Brian L Weiss [author of Many Lives, Many Masters] are to be believed, a past life trauma can also contribute to a present life phobia.

Films about phobias

Buried [Claustrophobia]

The story of an American contractor trapped underground in a box in Iraq

Vertigo [Acrophobia]

A Hitchcock film about how traumatic events, combined with an existing fear, can work together to destroy a mind

The Truman Show [Aquaphobia]

An ingenious TV-show-within-a-movie concept about a director controlling his unwitting star by instilling a fear of water

What about Bob? [Various phobias]

A movie about a man with an endless list of fears, from germs to heights to water and the dark

American Beauty [Homophobia]

An award-winning drama of a man with a fear of the unknown particularly pronounced towards gay people

Arachnophobia [Arachnophobia]

A horror-comedy featuring deadly Venezuelan-import spiders

The effect of a phobia varies from extreme anxiety to a full blown panic attack, where intense fear is accompanied by symptoms such as sweating, trembling, shaking, increased heart rate, breathlessness, a choking feeling, chest pain, dizziness, a tingling sensation and so forth. The dread can be severe enough to incapacitate you. Besides, the obvious physical effect, a phobia can also impact your personal and professional life. For instance, a person with a phobia of flying may avoid all air travel, which may affect his future at his workplace if it calls for travelling. An indirect consequence is passing on your phobia to an impressionable child in your home.

No more fears

Did you know there is an app to help overcome phobias? It requires you to stare at a picture of your most feared object [snakes, airplane interiors, blood, whatever brings beads of cold sweat to your brow] until it gradually ceases to affect you. It’s too soon to say if this method works, but there are other tried-and-tested treatments.

Systematic desensitisation is commonly used by therapists to gradually reduce the level of fear. It requires you to create a list of your feared situations, ranging from the least feared to the most feared. In Anju’s case, her list would start with a basic grilled lift of a two-storied building, going up to a high rise elevator with thick metal doors. The next step would be to visualise yourself in the least feared situation, then give yourself suggestions to relax, both physically [instrumental music] and mentally [listening to the calming voice of a loved one]. You do this until the least fear producing thought produces no fear. And then move on to the next one on the list till you arrive at the most fear producing stimulus and eradicate it.

If your phobia has a debilitating effect on your life, it is best to approach an experienced therapist who can work with you in a professional manner. Otherwise, you could:

Difference between fear and phobia

Fear has some rationale, whereas a phobia doesn’t. If you are suddenly thrown into a lion’s den with a hungry, ferocious cat charging towards you, it’s natural to feel fear. The object of a phobia, on the other hand, does not necessarily pose a threat to one’s survival or security. The cause of a phobia may not be easily known. For instance, some people have an intense fear of being in enclosed spaces, like elevators. There may be no known reason for it, no clear memory of any past experience that may have led to the phobia, yet it persists.

While a fear abates when the feared object is taken away, a phobia persists, creating anxiety in us even when we may be far away from the situation. One wouldn’t keep thinking about a lion when one is not face-to-face with the beast; but a phobia of enclosed spaces could be so pervasive that it could preoccupy one’s thoughts and one would keep looking for potential situations to avoid them.

  • Confront your fear on a rational level. Constantly remind yourself about the irrationality and persist till you get results.
  • Maintain a fear diary. Rate the intensity of your phobia on a scale of 1 to 10. Then write down a specified time frame by which you will bring it down to a certain number. Every time you are in the feared situation or you think about the feared situation, make an entry in your diary with the date and the intensity. Having this kind of visual control will enable you to quantify your fear and help you reduce its power and frequency.
  • Change your self-talk. Make every attempt to think positive. When you sense anxiety rising as you near the feared stimulus, instead of your typical self-talk [this is horrible, I can’t face this crowd, I’ll forget all my lines and fail miserably], acknowledge your fear in a neutral manner [I am feeling anxious at the thought of going on stage], and then focus on the changes happening in your mind and body [I can feel my feet shivering, my heartbeat is faster, I am feeling very scared] without attaching judgment to it [this is awful, how terrible this situation is]. Now focus on the behaviour you need to produce [I will do my best to be confident when I give my speech, even though I am scared and anxious, I will be fine when I start talking, I have prepared well, there is no reason why I should not deliver well].
  • Practice meditation or yoga. It is hard for fear to persist in a relaxed mind-body entity, and so regular practice of yoga, vipassana, or any other form of meditation will help you deal with your phobias.

This was first published in the May 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Samindara Hardikar-Sawant
Samindara Hardikar-Sawant is a clinical psychologist and hypnotherapist. She is the director of Disha Counseling Center in Mumbai and is the author of Taming the Tornado: A Parent Manual to Manage the ADHD Child.

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