Is it time to make fear work for you?
Spiders and heights terrify me. At least, they used to. I am not alone in suffering from phobias, and for many of us they can be debilitating and publicly embarrassing: the rapid breathing, cold sweat, pounding heart, knot in the pit of your stomach and instinct to run or just curl up in a ball and cry. We know phobias are irrational, but they are also very real and can be totally overwhelming in the moment. There are many reasons why phobias arise, including learned behaviour and early traumatic experiences, but fortunately phobias are also treatable. When a phobia starts to affect your life, it is time to act. This week, Simon Clarke, the chief secretary to the Treasury, missed a pre-budget photo op because of his agoraphobia, which is one solution. Whilst avoidance of certain situations can be effective, it is not always an option, and it doesn’t address the problem. I went to the Friendly Spider Programme at London Zoo to treat my arachnophobia, and it worked. After five hours in the presence of spider experts, psychologists and hypnotherapists, I can now catch a medium sized-spider (with my Spider Catcher™) and release it. I am also using the strategies I have learned to work on my fear of heights. If you are allowing a phobia to overwhelm you, there are ways to take back control. Seeking help will further empower you to deal with other difficult situations.
All Hallows’ Eve
Halloween is the perfect time of year to take a fresh look at our fears and phobias. Behind the rampant commercialism is the simple premise that there is some enjoyment to be had from fear when it is contained. Halloween has come a long way from its origins in the festival of Samhain which marked the boundary between the seasons, and this world and the next. The belief that the dead and evil spirits walk the earth taps into our natural fear of the dark and the unknown, but in modern times this has been transformed into ‘Trick or treat’, Halloween fancy dress and horror movies. We celebrate embracing our fears from a safe place, experiencing the adrenalin rush and the raised heartbeat without the danger. As a teenager I revelled in such ‘slasher horror’ as Nightmare on Elm Street, where Freddie Kreuger could only kill you if you fell asleep, but in 1990 I also went to see the film Arachnophobia (twice) and for the first time experienced real fear and elation simultaneously. I left the cinema, marvelling that fictional terror could be so exhilarating. I can only surmise it is why some people love rollercoasters and thrill rides at theme parks; there is a part of us that loves being terrified within boundaries. Facing our deepest fear from a distance and ‘surviving’ can be an intoxicating and cathartic experience, but what can we learn from this in our daily lives?
Facing Your Fears
Fears are more rational than phobias and are based in something that could feasibly happen to you or affect you. Fear is often a good thing as it protects you from harm, but it needs addressing if it is holding you back or making your world smaller. Many of us suffer from a fear of public speaking, change or failure but these fears can be mitigated. The first step is to name your fear e.g. a fear of public speaking may actually be fear of being judged. Then you can explore from where that fear originates, whether it is a pattern you repeat and how you have dealt with it in the past. Finally, you can make the fear or pattern serve you well. When next faced with a difficult situation, ask yourself: what assumptions am I making about this situation? What pattern am I repeating? How can I mitigate the risks? What is the worst thing that can happen? Even if your fear is realised, you can learn from it and adapt accordingly. Facing your fear will empower you and make you more resilient, so don’t dismiss your fear – sit with it and learn from it as much as you can. Take some small steps to start with – my journey to managing arachnophobia began by touching photos of spiders in books. You will feel better for even trying. That said, I won’t be chanting ‘Candyman’ 5 times into the mirror any time soon, and don’t get me started on clowns!