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3 Steps to Overcome a Phobia

From a psychologist, here is a 3-step process to help you overcome a phobia.

What is a Phobia?

Fear has a legitimate place in our lives. It helps keep us safe from threatening situations, like a wild animal or dangerous road. But sometimes, our normal fight-or-flight response gets its signals crossed, and it can lead to phobias and similar anxiety-inducing fears. 

With an actual phobia, it feels like you are in grave danger of injury or death, even though you aren’t. For example, if you have spider phobia, you may feel like they are predators that want to attack you. A spider in the house is a full-on crisis situation! In reality, spiders are mostly afraid of people, and either ignore us or run away.

Someone with a severe spider phobia (arachnophobia) may start to limit their lives. They may avoid engaging in activities where there might be spiders, like walking outdoors or gardening. Someone without that phobia would probably just ignore spiders, or sweep them outdoors when they see one in their house. 

What Causes Phobias?

A phobia usually comes from a bad past experience, that your brain now associates with serious danger. For example, severe turbulence on a single flight is enough to cause a fear of flying. Sometimes, though, a phobia occurs for no identifiable reason.

I have a colleague who developed a fear of water, after getting caught in a dangerous rip tide on vacation. It started out with fear of the ocean, and generalized to swimming pools, then bath tubs and showers! This phobia is a classic example of our nervous system trying to protect us, but going overboard. The good news is that he successfully overcame the water phobia with therapy similar to the steps I outline below. 

Are Phobias Curable?

Regardless of how your phobia developed, I want you to know that it is possible to overcome it. There will be unpleasantness as you confront your fears, but if you stick with it, you can overcome a phobia. 

Below is a three-step plan you can try, based on an empirically-supported, effective therapy called Exposure and Response Prevention. If you give this strategy a try on your own and it does not do the trick, I highly recommend finding a therapist trained in ERP to help guide you through the process. The accountability and trouble-shooting available in therapy can be invaluable. 

Image of a person relaxing on a grassy field, with a partly cloudy sky above. Relaxation and meditation form a foundation for overcoming a phobia.

1. Relaxation and meditation: the foundation for overcoming phobias

Practicing relaxation and meditation will not cure your phobia. But, it forms a crucial foundation for calming your nervous system as you learn to confront your fear. If you don’t already have a meditation or relaxation practice, I’ve got a quick and free way to start. Download the Headspace or Calm app, and spend five minutes a day following a guided relaxation or meditation session. You will thank yourself later, when you start facing your fears and you have these tools available to help calm yourself down. 

An image of a checklist. Creating a hierarchy list of fears helps in overcoming a phobia

2. Create a fear hierarchy: overcome your phobia in small steps

Next, you are going to think and write about different parts of your particular phobia. Make a list of the fearful thoughts, images, objects, and situations related to your phobia. Then, put them in order from least to most anxiety-provoking. For example, for a fear of heights, your list might start with looking at a picture of a tall building. You might put “imagining being up high” somewhere on the list. The last thing on the list might be standing on a balcony on the 30th floor of a building. 

Don’t worry: you don’t need to stand on that high balcony right now. By the time you reach the end of your hierarchy list, you will have overcome lesser fears in increments. You will have prepared yourself for that step, so it won’t be overwhelming. Stepping out on that balcony will be a triumphant step in the process of overcoming your phobia.

Woman on deck overlooking a lake, feeling calm after overcoming a phobia of water.

3. Desensitize yourself to your phobia gradually: you got this!

Finally, you begin to expose yourself to the feared situation in a gradual fashion, using the hierarchy you created. Start with the least stressful thing. It may be just imagining the situation or looking at pictures of it.

Expose yourself to this feared stimulus, and engage in a relaxation technique you have been practicing until you feel calm. Repeat with that particular stimulus until it does not really make you anxious anymore. Progress!

When you no longer experience much (or any) anxiety to an item on your list, you are ready to move up your hierarchy to the next item. Repeat the exposure/relaxation exercise with each item, as many times as necessary. Try to do some exposure work daily, if you can.

Move on the the next item on your hierarchy whenever the current one is no longer very stressful. The idea is that you will reach the end of your list, and you can face that “worst” fear with minimal anxiety.

Conclusion: Overcoming a Phobia

It is possible to overcome a phobia, because our nervous system can learn that something is safe. By learning to feel calm in increments, you can remain calm in the presence of the previously feared situation.

It takes work, because you are exposing yourself to the very thing that is making you feel so anxious and fearful. Avoidance and anxiety typically go hand in hand, which I talk about more in this article. Having the support of a therapist can be very helpful in overcoming a phobia.

The above 3-step process sounds simple, but having a professional support and guide you can make all the difference. It is easier to face the anxiety-provoking stimulus when a therapist has your back and is supporting you.

If you have a phobia, feel free to reach out for help. It is rewarding for me to work with clients who are struggling with phobias, because when you do the work, you can really get over them! If I’m not the right fit for you as a therapist, I can help you find someone who is.

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