How did you successfully conquer a severe phobia?
October 22, 2004 6:48 PM   Subscribe

How did you successfully conquer a severe phobia?
posted by nakedcodemonkey to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I was afraid of heights, so I climbed the Grand Canyon. I went down every switchback saying "death oh fuck death oh fuck death," and went back up saying "...," because I was too tired to do anything but wheeze and plod.

I still get a touch of vertigo standing near high precarious places, but I regard that as a healthy survival instinct. I used to hyperventilate, so I am satisfied with the improvement.

I don't know if it always works this way, but at least in this instance, inescapably immersing myself for so long in my fear meant that by the time I was finished, I was actually a bit bored with it.
posted by melissa may at 7:06 PM on October 22, 2004

My own phobia--calling strangers on the phone--vanished when I took a job doing fundraising. However, I wore out (literally!) two copies of Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway! in the process.

And, yes, I took the job because I hoped it would cure me of my fear of calling strangers on the phone. I was in my mid-twenties before I was able to phone for a pizza.

Actually, phobias are generally pretty easy to cure, if you can find the right person to help you. "The right person" in this context is a cognitive/behavioral therapist.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:23 PM on October 22, 2004

Just facing the fear and doing it anyway is a common answer to this, but it doesn't apply equally for all phobias. For example, if you're cripplingly frightened by the prospect of nuclear war, there's no way you can just face it and overcome it. I really really don't like spiders, as another example. But am I supposed to herd a few and let them crawl all over me? That's not exactly feeling the fear and doing it anyway, because I don't want to do that in the first place. Maybe there's some clinical distinction here? I'm not sure if irrational/rational is accurate. It's fairly rational to be afraid of nuclear war.

You haven't named a particular phobia, nakedcodemonkey, and perhaps you don't even have a particular one in mind, but there can be wide variances in how they operate. If you're interested in getting more specific, it could help.
posted by scarabic at 7:34 PM on October 22, 2004

I find research helps, oddly enough. I have a couple of severe phobias (Sidhedevil -- you are not alone with the fear of phoning strangers!) and I find learning everything I can about the fear helps. Just as examples: why do heights make some people dizzy? What keeps the plane in the air? Has anyone ever died of claustrophobia? Even just reading up on fear and panic attacks in general helped me so I can walk myself through them and understand what's happening rather than simply freak out even more.

Also, um, I like the occasional Xanax.
posted by jess at 7:40 PM on October 22, 2004

posted by ikkyu2 at 8:07 PM on October 22, 2004

Just facing the fear and doing it anyway is a common answer to this, but it doesn't apply equally for all phobias.

Amen. I'm terrified of driving in cities: when I've tried to beat my fear by going ahead anyway the terror effected my timing and judgment, and basically validated my fear (maybe even made it a bit worse). Maybe I need to do something through a driving school...
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 8:22 PM on October 22, 2004

"The right person" in this context is a cognitive/behavioral therapist.

Seconded. Depending on the phobia, it could take very few sessions in CBT to overcome it.
posted by somethingotherthan at 10:34 PM on October 22, 2004

Perhaps iikyu2 is being snarky, I dunno. Still, I overcame a pretty significant fear of flying after being prescribed an antidepressant for an anxiety disorder. After a time, I stopped having panic attacks, and enjoyed the "side effect" of being able to fly comfortably. I've since taken two trips to Europe and can't wait to take off again.
posted by aladfar at 12:15 AM on October 23, 2004

Response by poster: I think of "phobia" as an irrational or highly disproportionate fear. Being afraid of nukes seems pretty rational, though no doubt some people's fear is exaggerated enough to be phobic.

Scarabic, good point. I'm interested in hearing experiences generally, partly out of sheer curiosity and partly for new ideas. My particular phobia: hypodermic needles. For too long it's interfered with getting proper medical treatment, and enough's enough. Unfortunately, behavioral therapy flopped because it's such a contexualized reaction (i.e. fine if someone else is being stuck, and even if I'm the one doing the sticking, but intense panic and hyperventilation as soon as the threat's directed at me). Antidepressants aren't an option either, because (wait for the irony...) BLOOD TESTS are a prerequisite.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 1:01 AM on October 23, 2004

Regarding city driving, I wouldn't say I had a phobia, but until I was twenty all my driving experience was in rural areas, and cities were pretty freaking intimidating. I made a few big mistakes because I was nervous (wrong way down a one way, things like that) the first time out, and almost decided it just wasn't for me. What cured me was taking a few hours to drive around San Francisco with no particular goals. I was there to take pictures, but I didn't have a route or a deadline, so it was the perfect chance to get over my problem. Without the stress of needing to pay attention to the larger aspect of where I was going, I picked up a lot of the important details of city driving pretty quickly, and now it's no problem.
posted by Nothing at 1:21 AM on October 23, 2004

As Socrates said, "Just Do It(tm)".
posted by Pretty_Generic at 2:46 AM on October 23, 2004

I've been to a cognitive/behavioral therapist for a phobia of my own. Let me give you a run down of the process. (It definitely helps to have a therapist guide you though this, but no harm in trying it at home).

1.) Make a list from 1 to 10 of things that trigger the phobia in order of intensity, 10 being full-on screaming bloody murder panic. (ex: 1. Going to Disney World and seeing Mickey Mouse... 10. Having a rat crawl on your face.) You'll be using this list later.

2.) Make a list of "automatic thoughts" about each item on list #1. These are the "reasons" for your phobia. (ex: "I'm afraid that rats will chew my flesh off!")

3.) Take item #1 from your list and really examine your automatic thoughts about it. (ex: "Well, Mickey Mouse isn't even REALLY a mouse. Actually, he's just some chick dressed up in a mouse costume.") Really work these over. Don't be afraid to concede that you may be partially correct on some of your fears... but are they really as terrible as your reactions warrant? The worst fear is a vague, unknown fear. Nail it down.

4.) When you feel that you have sufficiently nailed down exactly what makes you afraid and debunked that which needs debunking. It's time to gradually expose yourself to the situation. (ex: Look at pictures of Mickey Mouse. Then watch a video with Mickey Mouse. Then go to Disney World and eyeball MM from a safe distance...) Once you have decided on an exposure, do not avoid it! Avoidance is what gives the phobia legitimacy. When you're afraid, your mind kicks into "fight or flight" mode... avoiding the situation alleviates the fear, but trains your mind to think that "flight" is the correct response... good thing I made it out of that situation without the vague, terrible, unknown thing happening." Follow through... you'll probably see that the result isn't so bad. That's good mental training.

5.) Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you have worked through your list and are able have a rat walk on your face. Or whatever.
posted by 4easypayments at 9:15 AM on October 23, 2004 [2 favorites]

When you're afraid, your mind kicks into "fight or flight" mode... avoiding the situation alleviates the fear, but trains your mind to think that "flight" is the correct response...

Yeah, in the case of Mickey Mouse, "fight" is the proper response... ;)
posted by kindall at 10:06 AM on October 23, 2004


.... is what gets me through air travel. Those little white pills are ever sooooo nice.

I'm afraid of the water, specifically I'm convinced that I'll be eaten by sharks. I even get this feeling swimming in a pool. It's totally irrational. So, I'm going to Costa Rica for my birthday in December, where I will go diving. I will face my fear and hopefully overcome it once and for all and in the process I hope to see some really cool underwater sights.
posted by Juicylicious at 8:47 PM on October 23, 2004

Antidepressants aren't an option either, because (wait for the irony...) BLOOD TESTS are a prerequisite.

Wait...what? I've never heard of this.

Perhaps you need to find a better therapist. There are several ways to approach curing a phobia, either a systematic debunking like 4easypayments, or you are given a set of coping strategies to employ when the anxiety seizes you.
posted by somethingotherthan at 11:39 PM on October 23, 2004

Response by poster: Wait...what? I've never heard of this.

They have to test for thyroid condition and some other stuff, before prescribing a med that messes with the blood chemistry. At least that's what I was always told by doctors in the past. What, is there a new one that doesn't require the blood tests? God that would be fantastic if there is.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 1:05 AM on October 24, 2004

NCM, I've never heard of doctors routinely giving blood tests before prescribing psychiatric medications. Your medical history should be indicative enough of whether or not you have any thyroid issues.

Also, needle phobia is absolutely one of the phobias that can be cured quickly by CBT desensitization therapy. I've (literally) seen someone do it on television in the course of an hour-long program. Please look for another therapist who is trained in CBT and you could be over this problem in a few weeks.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:40 PM on October 24, 2004

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