Facing Our Fears

Danny was a 35 year-old-man who lived at home with his aging mother. His father had died when he was fifteen and he unwillingly had the role as “the man of the house.” Between Danny’s new responsibilities at home and coping with adolescence, he began feeling very overwhelmed and anxious.

He started to become agoraphobic, and so he restricted his travel to a three-mile radius around his home. As a young adult, he worked with computers and was able to hold down a job as long as he didn’t have to exceed his “safety zone.” His phobias hindered his socialization and he had difficulty meeting people within such a small radius from his home.  His world gradually became more confined, and his world got smaller and smaller.

He became isolated, depressed and more anxious.Danny eventually got help through going to therapy and his phobias lessened, enabling him to function more effectively in the outside world.

I was so thrilled to see Danny succeed and begin to live a fuller, richer life.

Phobias are powerful manifestations of anxiety that can severely limit your life.

  • Does the thought of driving on a highway bring on feelings of anxiety?
  • Do crowds of people or occasions where you have to socialize distress you?
  • Do you avoid elevators, escalators or airplanes so as to not feel trapped?
  • Have you avoided taking CAT scan or MRI because you have great difficulty with enclosed spaces?

Do you feel overwhelmed with public speaking at work?

Sometimes we avoid the above situations because they bring on feelings of stress or somatic responses like sweaty palms, dizziness, heart palpitations, feelings of loss of control or fear of dying.

Oftentimes, phobias may develop from underlying sources of stress or trauma.

Stress is a common factor of our everyday lives.  We all experience stress when we need to adjust to life’s changes.  Most people believe that stressful situations are negative, i.e., illness, getting injured, death of a loved one, getting fired. However, stress can also be related to positive events; getting a promotion, engagement, new marriage, having children, buying a home and all the expectations that are involved with that new stage of life.

Stress can be caused by three sources: environmental, physiological, and cognitive factors.

  • A person’s environment can directly impact their stress level. We are all exposed to varying degrees of noise pollution, crowds, weather changes, pressures of time and work performance and feelings of insecurity about our physical safety and self esteem.
  • Physiological stress comes from changes in our bodies due to illness, hormonal changes, lack of sleep, exercise, poor nutrition, and aging.  All of these changes can tax the body leading to an increase in anxiety.
  • The third source of stress is on a cognitive level, our thoughts and how our brain perceives threats and danger with life’s changes.

A phrase used to describe the response to anxiety and stress is “fight or flight”. A physiologist at Harvard, Walter Cannon was the first to coin this phrase  to describe series of biochemical responses that prepare the body to deal with perceived threats. In the early years of human existence we needed quick bursts of energy to fight or flee from predators. Today, the fight or flight response is not socially acceptable and therefore the brain sends out an alarm signal to the body and one may experience changes in blood pressure, pulse, breathing, and perspiration as well as other more technical symptoms.

Some people who experience high levels of stress and some of the associated symptoms develop specific phobias and begin to avoid situations that bring on the symptoms of anxiety.

There are several treatment options for specific phobias:

Exposure or Desensitization Therapy

This treatment focuses on changing our response to an object or situation that has been the source of fear.  With systematic, repeated exposure to the situation and the connected feelings, sensations and thoughts, our anxiety can be lessened and eventually managed effectively.

An example: If you are afraid and avoidant of escalators, the therapist would start out showing you a picture of one, then a video of someone using an escalator, you would then move near an escalator and finally take one flight up on one, with increased rides on the escalator gradually lowering the anxiety to a tolerable level.

CBT Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

This therapy incorporates exposure therapy with different techniques to help the client learn to look at and cope with the object or situation that brings on fear in a different way.

You will be taught a new belief system about your fears and how your body responds to them as well as the impact on your life. CBT focuses on changing our thought patterns as a way to gain a feeling of mastery over our thoughts and feelings which can bring on the phobic reaction and avoidant behavior.

The object or situation can be tolerated rather than elicit extreme anxiety or avoidance.

After over 35 years of living a restricted life, Danny sought out the help of the Phobia Clinic where I worked and began to directly deal with his anxiety and avoidant behavior. He learned CBT tools which helped him view his anxiety differently and then through in-vivo desensitization he went out into the community with the group. Gradually, he was exposed to situations which he had avoided for years. After developing some feeling of mastery over the formerly avoided activities he began seeing an individual therapist to help him cope with some feelings and issues that began to surface.

Today, Danny is retired and had a successful career as a computer programmer.  He eventually moved out of his mother’s house, began commuting to a new job an hour away, and found a life-long partner with whom he built a family. His avoidant behavior lessened significantly and he has been able to lead a meaningful life with minimal anxiety.

There is so much we can do to ease the pain of a life with anxiety and phobias. Reaching out for help is the first step!