Blog Swap: How to Conquer your Fears and Phobias
Nadene van der Linden is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Perth, Australia. Nadene is the author of best-selling ‘Tales from the Parenting Trenches: A Clinical Psychologist vs. Motherhood’ and recently published ‘Live life to the full: Your guide to feeling better sooner’. For more tips follow Nadene on instagram @nadenev.thepsychologist or facebook: Nadenev.thepsychologist and visit her at lindenclinicalpsychology.com.au for more posts.
About 20 years ago, I clung onto a metal peg a few meters up a tree, seemingly frozen and unable to move. I felt the familiar feeling of my fear of heights sweep over me. I had wanted to climb the Gloucester tree but in that moment I could not go further. Nor could I go back down. For those unfamiliar with the Gloucester tree, it is a 65 metre tall tree lookout located in Pemberton, Western Australia which tourists can climb and take in the view from the platform.
This year, I can proudly announce, I climbed to the top of the Bicentennial tree at a very tall 75 metres high. What a fantastic feeling it was to conquer my fear and to know that my fear of heights did not own me anymore. In this post, I explain phobia and the steps I took to overcome mine.
So what caused the freeze?
The freeze, all those years ago, was caused by my phobia of heights. Phobia is the label given to fears that are excessive or cause interference to functioning. Sometimes there can be a connection between the phobia and human survival needs or a past experience of danger. The person with a phobia responds as though there is imminent life threatening danger present when exposed to any aspect of the feared object or experience. For example, the child who is afraid of dogs is very fearful of all dogs regardless of the dog’s behaviour. Some phobias cause big problems in daily living. In my case I could mostly get around my phobia by avoiding heights so my phobia did not impede my daily functioning.
When you have a phobia, your body and mind respond as if you are in imminent danger even if you logically know that you won’t die. For those of you who have worked with me, you will likely be familiar with the fight, flight or freeze response to threat and how the body and brain responds and reacts to perceived threat in a very physical way. With a phobia, although there may be no actual danger in that moment, you will respond in a state of high physical arousal if you are exposed to your feared situation/ animal and your body and brain will make the choice whether to fight, flee or freeze to cope. And that is exactly what happened to me on that tree 20 years ago.
What role did my mind play in the freeze?
Although I wanted to join my friends, my mind had started telling me on the car ride to the tree that I did not like heights. It also produced other thoughts such as “what if I fall?” “Is it really safe?” “What if I get up there and then I can’t get down” etc.
By the time I was at the tree I was already mildly anxious. Looking up the tree at the little ant people up the top pretty much took me past a 6/10 distress level and I started experiencing feelings of dizziness , hot flashes and probably a range of other anxiety symptoms which I don’t recall as clearly now.
It was in this state that I started to climb up the pegs. Is it any wonder that it didn’t work out? My physical symptoms then seemed to confirm to me that heights were dangerous and also set of another chain of thoughts about not feeling well enough to get up to the top.
On that day my phobia of heights won over and deprived me of the experience I was hoping for. The end result was not just missing out on the view, I also felt weak and a bit foolish for thinking I could do it and was also embarrassed for freezing.
How did I conquer my fears?
Back then, I had only completed one year of my undergraduate psychology degree and I had little idea about how to manage my anxiety other than trying to push myself through or use thoughts such as “don’t worry about it” “everyone else can do it, it can’t be that bad”. There is nothing wrong in particular with these thoughts but when your body is having a full scale anxiety attack; these thoughts don’t touch the side of the anxiety. It’s a bit like taking a paracetamol for a migraine headache.
Below is a guide to how I overcame my phobia that you may also find helpful.
The secret to tackling phobias is:
• Learning soothing/ calming techniques –Learn how to soothe your physical symptoms (or the body alarm)
• Develop helpful thoughts. Challenge unhelpful thoughts about the feared situation
• Graded exposure. Make a list of activities that you fear doing related to your phobia. Rank them from easiest to most difficult. Then tackle each one from easiest to most difficult using your calming strategies and helpful thoughts
• Be willing – you must be willing to experience some anxiety as you tackle your exposure activities.
Since the time I learnt about graded exposure, I have been deliberately exposing myself to heights, peering over edges, walking over bridges, looking down on purpose and wobbling suspension bridges. Avoidance had the effect of making me feel weak and I did not like that feeling more than I liked avoiding anxiety.
I became willing to expose myself to heights and the feelings that came with it. It helped that I now knew how to calm my body with slow breathing, mindfulness and grounding strategies. The calming strategies I used allowed me to expose myself to heights as I could stay calm enough to do it and avoided the freeze reaction.
I used evidence collected about heights such as the probability that I would die or fall etc and what was the most likely outcome. By using these strategies rather than just tolerating the experience I even started to enjoy the sensation of heights!! It all came together with the Bicentennial tree climb. When I visited the tree my mind suggested that I didn’t need to do it, it wasn’t fair to make my children wait at the bottom of the tree for me, so a little bit of the “old stuff” was still there.
I noticed those thoughts recognising them as avoidance thoughts, centred my breath and started. There was a couple of moments where I felt a bit scared, like when the wind started blowing a lot when I was climbing the very last vertical ladder, but it was manageable. It felt so good when I reached the top and enjoyed the view. To reach the bottom having successfully climbed the tree and seeing my children’s excited faces, so proud of their Mum for making to the top was another bonus.
Stop letting your fear control you through avoidance behaviours – make a plan to conquer your fears today. Are you willing? If needed seek out a clinical psychologist to help you plan your course of action.