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How to overcome phobias and conquer your fears in four steps

Overcoming fears and phobias is a challenge, but with a little help from psychology you can have them beaten in four steps.

1

Identify your fear

The first step in overcoming a phobia is knowing what it is you’re scared of. While a fear of spiders might be easy to pin down, something like agoraphobia – a fear of public places or open spaces – can have a root cause that’s a bit more abstract. It might be down to a dislike of crowds, or it could be social situations.

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It seems obvious, but identifying exactly what it is you’re really scared of gives you a point of reference and something concrete to address.

Also, recognising early incidents in your past that may have led you to acquire the phobia in the first place can help you understand why there’s nothing you need to be afraid of anymore.

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2

Understand it

Clinical psychologists commonly use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to deal with phobias. It’s a two-pronged approach that tackles your anxieties by first, addressing your thoughts and attitudes about the fear and, secondly, combating your physical response to the thing you’re afraid of.

One process used within this is known as cognitive restructuring. According to its pioneers, Albert Ellis and Robert Harper, you can begin to repair ‘faulty thinking’ by either discussing your fears with someone else, or using ‘self-talk’. The idea is to reveal that if you confront your biggest fear, there’s no chance that you’ll come to any harm at all.

3

Take Action

The second branch of CBT requires you to actually take action against your phobias. Both parts of the process are vital to success, but this is where you actually come face-to-face with what scares you.

One common technique is known as modelling. The idea is to observe or spend time with someone that regularly deals with whatever it is you’re scared of. So if you’re scared of spiders, you could watch someone handling a creepy crawly.

When that no longer seems difficult, the next step would be to get closer to the spider in slight increments – never taking on more than you can manage. Regular practice is essential in building up a ‘resistance’ to your fear over time.

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Work gradually

While exposure to your biggest fear may well help you to overcome it over time, throwing yourself in the deep end could actually make matters worse.

Andy Field who researches the acquisition of fear at Sussex University warns that facing your fears directly can result in you exacerbating them.

“If you’re afraid of spiders and you try and watch the film Arachnophobia, but end up switching it off halfway through, you only make matters worse. By avoiding the situation you’re reinforcing the idea that you should be afraid of it. The best way to approach this ‘exposure therapy’ is to never take on more than you think you can handle.”

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