Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Overcoming Phobias

In 1990, out of the blue, I got panic attacks. In retrospect, I can see why; I had a toddler and a precarious marriage as well as feelings of helplessness because he was so in control of everything, that I had never so much as paid a bill or been allowed to make decisions. I was a mother without any real training to make it in the world with my child if anything happened with my marriage. I felt very powerless and very overwhelmed with fears and doubt. The conversations within my head were bleak, full of self-doubt and fear.

Within a few months' time, I went from having the worst imaginable panic disorder and fear of being alone, to going back to college, studying for a career, running a self help group, giving lectures, workshops and writing articles about recovery from anxiety disorders, and working full time. 

I used a technique called rational-emotive therapy. It is cognitive-behavioral practice and it's brilliant for everything from depression to addictions, phobias to anxiety. It involves changing your thinking so your emotions also change; if you have rational thoughts, you have rational emotions.


I went on over the past 20 years to sponsor over 4 dozen people through recovery. Phobias and anxiety disorders are unbelievably treatable and within 12 weeks a person should have the skills to never face it again. Even though the worst things that could happen to me in my life happened to me since recovery, I have never had it creep back into my life because I built up skills that make for a life of total independence and self security and the ability to handle anything mentally and therefore emotionally. In other words, I do not torment myself with negative and irrational thoughts, thus having negative and irrational responses.

One thing researchers have found is that people with things such as PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder is vital is that they talk about the experience that made them fearful over and over and over again and again until it has the power of a grocery list. Each time they tell their history, they realize they feel less and less scared of telling it and less and less emotionally involved in the telling. 

The same goes for treating phobias.

Let's take a famously haunted house for example.  Four people enter the house to investigate. You assume when activity begins, they all have the same reaction--nope.

They huddle together in a room where they all see a shadow cross the room and hear a moan:

Person 1: Thinks "who is in the room messing with us?" he gets angry and then rushes towards it.
Person 2: Thinks "is that one of our shadows? Did someone's stomach growl?" he feels curious and asks the group to move and see if their shadows move and then asks if a stomach grumbled.
Person 3: Thinks "oh my God! It's in the room! What if it gets me?" He feels scared and he retreats.
Person 4: Thinks "how am I going to handle it if it gets crazier?" He feels anxious and he moves closer to the others.

When a person encounters the thing they fear, they have thoughts. It's the thoughts and mental images that scare them. I know that because in the height of my panic disorder and all the weird feelings in my body and racing mind, I begged my husband at the time not to go to work. "Please don't leave me alone with my thoughts!" I begged. His leaving meant that it was silent and I could torment myself relentlessly with what if's and imagery, jumping to conclusions and focusing on the negative. 

So, when a person afraid of a spider sees a spider:
A. They have thoughts ("what if it gets on me and crawls across my skin?) 
B. Those thoughts create emotions (terror). 
C. Those emotions create actions (running away). 

Over time, unchecked, the person can't even face a photo of a spider or someone talking about it. Their world gets smaller and smaller in order to not feel those creepy feelings (which originate from thoughts that went from "spiders are creepy" to "I can't take it if a spider gets near me!"). 

The more you run, the more you feel there is reason to run. It's like panic in a movie theater. One person gets up to run to the bathroom to vomit and everyone else thinks there is reason to rush out of the theater and soon there is a stampede. 

The only way to stop such a cycle is to turn and face it. All the logic in the world like "bridges can't hurt you" isn't going to stop the illogical reaction to crossing a bridge. You begin by showing the person that as they face the photos of bridges and discussing bridges and realize that they are not going to die or go crazy, it begins to lose its power to terrorize.  Eventually, you work toward having the person watch people drive over a bridge. Perhaps you have them walk a short distance on the bridge. With realistic self talk and repeated exposure, fears can be obliterated.

There is no need to suffer or make your world smaller and smaller.

I found two books that secured my recovery and I consider them the "bibles" and I have advised people going through recovery that with these two books on hand, they should never have issues again (links below). When I discovered them, it was like someone gave me books that had the secrets to happiness and success and why aren't we teaching kids in school this? It's like an instruction manual for the mind. I had no idea what I fed my mind caused such reactions in my body and such terror. But, just imagine biting into a waxy lemon and juice spurting and your mouth waters. That's the power of the mind.  

Just remember, it's not the "thing" you're afraid of that is terrifying, it is what goes on in your mind when you see or experience that "thing." It's the same as watching a horror movie and getting all worked up even though you know it's an edited film. You worry "what if this gets scarier?" Soon, you're hiding under a blanket.

It always comes down to this - you cannot have an emotion without first having a thought. That thought will create either appropriate emotion or out of proportion.

Example: John's friend Mark tells him his decision to vote Republican is stupid. John thinks, "how dare he think I'm stupid!" Now, John is angry. But, he could as easily tell himself, "Mark likes to vote Democrat, of course he sees it that way," and so he lets it pass without incident. It was his unreasonable belief that his friend should agree with him that caused him out of proportion anger and perhaps even made him act on it by saying something nasty back. 

I hope this gets you thinking about how phobias are not organic--they don't just come from nowhere and emotions don't just naturally come from some wellspring inside--they are all the results of your internal dialogue. There are wonderful REBT therapists out there (rational-emotive-behavioral therapy) so if you're going to treat a phobia, do find one. All the talk about your childhood is not going to cure you of an anxiety disorder - but this will.


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