On a bright day at the tail end of August, a young mother took her three-month old son for a walk. He was a cute, bubbly baby boy with bright brown eyes and a hypnotic smile. She would give her life for his in a heartbeat. With unfailing love and the fiery new-mother diligence, and vigilance, she made it a point to put her son in the stroller and go for long walks in her neighborhood.
Once, at a crosswalk, a taxi aggressively went for a right turn and she put herself between the stroller and the car, shouting at the driver and slamming her fist on the hood. The summer New York City heat was rising from the asphalt like steam from a pot. The young mother had her covered son in a stroller while walking through the Coney Island neighborhood of Brooklyn. She made her way up the sidewalk with a tall chain-link fence to her left and the unusually unbusy street on her right. That’s when she saw it. Living terror. She ran across the street, where she collapsed, put her hands on her knees and hyperventilated. Sweat was dripping from her forehead, a mixture of the shooting fear in her nerves and rising temperature. With her eyes wide open and a pounding heart, she looked across the street. There it was. The stroller. In her panic at seeing the snake come out of the grass she blindly left her son in the stroller on the other side.
You’re probably asking yourself, “What mother in her right mind would leave her child?” The answer is none. The woman who this happened to shared this experience with me. She was a colleague I worked with at a community mental health agency. Utter disbelief painted her face as she recalled the event. She felt deeply ashamed that she endangered her child because of her intense fear of snakes. Fear is intense and it can remove us from our senses and rational mind. It’s safe to say that when we’re afraid, we’re not usually thinking with our clearest heads. You’re mind has probably already put yourself in this woman’s predicament and you’re wondering how you would react. Chances are your reaction would be much the same given you had the same intense fear.
So how do we control the fear? First we identify it. What is it that we’re so intensely afraid of? According to the DSM 5, “Individuals with a specific phobia are fearful or anxious about or avoidant of circumscribed objects or situations. The fear, anxiety, or avoidance is almost always immediately induced by the phobic situation, to a degree that is persistent and out of proportion to the actual risk posed.” Examples of types of specific phobias are animal; natural environment; blood-injection-injury; and situational. Simply put: people who have a specific phobia feel intense fear or anxiety about the object or situation. The object or situation 9 times out of 10 provokes immediate fear or anxiety. The fear or anxiety is also out of proportion to the actual degree of danger. Staying with the story above, the mother is afraid of snakes. If she was in the Amazon and an anaconda was wrapped around her that is cause for intense fear and anxiety. At the sight of a garden snake coming out of a bush this woman ran across the street leaving her child, that is the sign of an overpowering disproportionate fear. Even more telling is the way she felt after the event.
Specific phobias may develop after a traumatic event, examples being getting stuck in an elevator or being attacked by an animal. These phobias tend to develop in early childhood with many cases developing between ages 7 and 11. With the right mindset, attitude, and treatment, phobias that otherwise may be difficult to treat can be mitigated. Of note, phobias can also develop on the other side of the ageing continuum. Older adults may develop specific phobias; a fear of falling or a natural-environment specific phobia may arise.
Interventions: Here are some brief preliminary interventions that may be part of a larger plan. I recommend developing a more involved plan with a professional to support and guide you through the process.
- Ask yourself for evidence of the anxiety and logical reasons for the phobia being present. For example, “What is the evidence for me being anxious about snakes?” “What is the logical reason for why I am afraid of snakes?” List and write as needed.
- Develop a list of past and present life experiences that contribute to the phobia. For each experience on that list make sure to write out the critical details i.e. who, what, where, when, and why.
- Author a narrative, journal entry, or story that describes how you would react to the situation if you were not afraid of the situation or object. In the case of the snake, “If I were as brave as I wanted to be and was not afraid of snakes how would I react to the situation?” Possibly it would have been as simple as continuing walking without a second thought or removing attention from the snake.
- Identify a time or situation when you were able to manage the specific anxiety or general anxiety. Clearly describe the approach you used and attempt to use that previous coping. Make sure to evaluate and modify the approach as needed.
As always, go ahead and try it.
Remember, fear can be controlled (and even conquered- more to follow). Check out six of the more uncommon phobias and the celebrities who have them at this link.
A large part of what makes the LEED program successful is the individualized attention we give to your personally particular circumstances and experiences using the EnMEK model. Contact us for a free consultation, so that we can assist you with getting closer to the life you want.
DISCLAIMER: If you are experiencing an emergency and/or you feel that you need immediate assistance, contact your local emergency services, mental health crisis hotline listed in your local directory, or your local police department.