Coping With Your Fears

Let's assume you have an irrationally strong fear. You're afraid to ride in elevators, for example. You know your fear is ridiculous but still you can't get over it. You even know how your fear began: as a small child you were badly frightened when you became stuck in an elevator.

You also realize that you literally imagine yourself into your fear. Whenever you think of riding in an elevator, you picture it getting stuck or crashing to the basement.

Now the immediate cause of your fear is obvious: your anticipation of possible harm or pain as a result of riding an elevator. And no matter how unrealistic and improbable your fear may be, it is very real, uncomfortable and debilitating to you. If you are to overcome your fear, however, you will need to make a two pronged attack on it: by changing your thinking and by changing your behavior. You would first have to persuade yourself of the irrationality of your fear. The chances are very slim that you would ever again be stuck in an elevator, and even if you were, you would probably be rescued or the elevator quickly repaired. And in the very unlikely event that the cable would break, you would have to realize there are back-up cables designed to prevent the elevator from crashing to the bottom floor.

In addition, you would have to face your fear, but slowly and gradually. Perhaps you could first stand near an elevator and just watch it operate without mishap. Then you could walk into it, but quickly walk out again. Next, you could stay in the elevator for a few minutes, first with the door open and then with it closed. Finally, you could ride up one floor, then two floors, three floors and so on.

If at any time during this gradual, systematic facing of your fear, you should become panicky, stop whatever you are doing, back off and start again, lest you make your fear worse.

For example, if you panic when the elevator door first closes, open it immediately and get out of the elevator. Then spend more time in the elevator with the door open or half open until you are comfortable with this. The only way to reduce any fear is to face it. Talking about it helps; realizing the irrationality of it helps; determining its cause also helps. But to be effectively and completely conquered, the fear must be experienced and overcome. Often this is best done slowly, gradually and systematically. You might overcome your fear if you were suddenly plunged into the feared situation without adequate preparation, but chances are you will really be frightened and so make your fear stronger.

If you can't overcome your fear by yourself, a mental health professional may be able to help you do so using a technique called systematic desensitization. You will be taught deep muscle relaxation and then asked to imagine yourself in the feared situation while in a relaxed state.

The idea behind systematic desensitization is that you cannot be fearful and relaxed at the same time. The two reactions are incompatible with each other. Similarly, you cannot concentrate on relaxing your body while imagining terrible things happening to you.

In this way, relaxation is used to systematically overcome or inhibit your fear. And having done this in your imagination, you are better prepared to face your fear in real life, the only arena in which it can be conquered.

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About The Author / Credits: J. Bailey Molineux, a psychologist with Adult and Child Counseling, has incorporated many of his articles in a book, Loving Isn't Easy, Isbn 1587410419, sold through bookstores everywhere or available directly from Copyright 2002, J. Bailey Molineux and, all rights reserved. This article may be reprinted but must include authors copyright and website hyperlinks.

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