When an intense fear of a phobia strikes, it's easy to feel that we're not only failing psychologically, but also in our spiritual lives.
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For millions of people, phobias are not just a source of fear, but also shame. If you’ve ever been intensely afraid of being in closed spaces or encountering dogs in your neighborhood or flying in an airplane, you understand that it isn’t easy to admit at just how much an intense fear can affect your life.
Kids are often less inclined to hide phobias, but most of us — young and old alike — believe that phobias are a sign of weakness or compromised intellect. Christians are often raised with the idea that we shouldn’t be afraid and that God will take care of us. So when an intense fear of a phobia strikes, it’s easy to feel that we’re not only failing psychologically, but also in our spiritual lives.
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But the reality is that phobias are common and strike people of all dispositions, circumstances, and means. Some struggling with phobias have had a traumatic experience that precipitated a longstanding fear. But in my work as a psychologist, I find that many people have simply had an unpleasant (but not overly harmful) experience that provoked an initial avoidance that then ballooned into an intense fear. If you’ve ever been scared by a menacing dog, for example, it’s easy to see how avoiding dogs altogether might be the safest and simplest response.
By definition, a phobia is an extreme or irrational fear that significantly impacts an individual’s functioning or causes significant distress. As distinguished from other types of anxiety or reasonable fears, a phobia is defined in a few specific ways. First, it is associated with an intense emotional reaction almost every time a specific circumstance or object is encountered. Second, someone with a phobia will go to great means to avoid the impetus for their fear, even if it results in significant inconvenience or hardship. And third, the degree of the fear itself is disproportionate to the actual danger that exists.
Although the features of phobias are similar, the types are widely varied. While some may have an intense fear of certain experiences (such as being in an elevator), others may have strong reactions to animals or other environmental occurrences (such as storms). Some people may have a phobic reaction to perceptions of being judged negatively while others may worry that a panic attack will ensue in the middle of a large crowd and they won’t be able to escape. But for all, the fear is intense and distressing.
To treat phobias, a few main approaches are typically used. The most common is gradual exposure techniques that encourage systematic desensitization. Simply put, people are taught to create a “hierarchy of fears,” while gradually exposing themselves to increasingly challenging situations until they finally progress to the most feared of all circumstances (e.g., petting a dog).
Cognitive-behavioral techniques are also commonly used with exposure therapy, where people are taught specific calming skills (e.g., deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, reframing of thoughts) to use as they progress through the hierarchy.
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Medications can be helpful at times to reduce anxiety levels enough to utilize the treatments mentioned, but are not a front line defense. Even in-vitro exposure, or virtual exposure, is used where a person imagines being exposed the fear object or circumstance, and uses techniques to induce greater calmness. However, most effective treatments still demand some degree of real exposure to be effective in the long run.
No matter what intervention you may try, and regardless of your desires and intent, the shame and embarrassment you may feel about a phobia can leave you immobilized. Think for a second of the times you felt alone in your struggles and feared that admitting it to others would expose you as weak, faithless, or incompetent. It is at these moments that the virtue of courage becomes paramount, and that we need to remind ourselves that even the greatest saints were afflicted with moments of cowardice and discouragement. In the end, they were not defined by these struggles, but rather by their persistence in forging ahead the path they were called to pursue.
There is something else you should know. An emerging body of research suggests that we may be largely responsible for the shame that we feel. Research has found that while few people indicate they would condemn others for a phobic reaction (or for that matter, any psychological issue), they believe that many more would condemn them for the same challenges. In other words, it appears that we perceive others as being more harsh and judgmental than we ourselves would ever be.
Now, there are some potential confounding factors in the research methods that may have moderated or mediated these effects. Nevertheless, there’s compelling evidence to suggest that embarrassment or shame that a person feels related to phobias — or any other psychological difficulty — is more a product of our self-appraisal than what others actually think and convey to us.
Although in some ways this might be a frustrating message, I view it as a hopeful one. Because as a psychologist, I have repeatedly found that when people reach out in authentic, transparent, humble ways regarding their struggles, they’re usually surprised at how much more accepting (and less judgmental) others are in understanding and accepting them in their vulnerability.
Not everyone struggles with a phobia, although many more people do than you or I will ever know. But all of us struggle with fears, and we would all do ourselves and each other a great service if we would strive to acknowledge where the fear lies and go in search of the most effective response. In many ways, FDR was right when he said the following:
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
Don’t forget. He uttered this phrase in the middle of the Great Depression, a time when people had plenty to fear. Yet he recognized what psychological research has come to show; that is, only when retreat is turned to advance do our fears begin to subside. And we recognize what our faith has to say: “When you are afraid, don’t forget that I am with you ‘wherever you go.'” [Joshua 1:9)