Previously, we had discussed how anxiety evolves from the negative cycle of anxiety: triggers lead to thoughts about the situation or event, which lead to anxiety, which lead to avoidant behaviors which maintain the negative cycle of anxiety. When anxiety starts to disrupt your life, then an anxiety disorder may emerge. Anxiety disorders are divided into several subtypes. Today, we will discuss how specific phobia evolves from the negative cycle of specific phobia
Specific phobia is an intense fear of a specific object or situation. So you may have an intense fear of an object such as an animal, of insects such as spiders, a fear of dogs. You may have a fear of water. You may have a fear of a specific situation such as a fear of heights, or a fear of crossing bridges. These are examples of specific phobias, where you have an intense fear of an object or situation.
Here’s an example of a negative cycle of specific phobia (formerly known as simple phobia):
It starts off with a trigger, where you see, hear, or think about the feared object or situation. So for instance, you may have a fear of spiders. When you see a spider, then this induces thoughts about the spider, and you may then think “Something bad is going to happen,” or “I will not be able to cope,” or “I’m going to be harmed as this spider is going to bite me.” The thoughts then induces feelings of anxiety and fear, and also the physical effects of anxiety from the release of adrenaline, also known as the fight or flight response, where you have shortness of breath, increased rate of breathing, faster heartbeat, sweating, pupils dilate, and increased alertness. So the anxiety, fearfulness, and the physical symptoms of anxiety can make you very uncomfortable, which then compels you to avoid the feared object or situation, or you may flee and escape from it. Although avoidance may help you reduce anxiety over the short term, the behavior actually maintains your overall anxiety from the feared object or situation. In addition, the avoidance maintains your belief in the danger and the urgency of the events. This then forms this never-ending loop, where you have this negative, vicious cycle of specific phobia. But when you avoid, you never get to find out that your anxiety will go away on its own, naturally, if you just expose yourself long enough to the feared object or situation.
So how do you deal with a fear of spiders, a fear of heights, or a fear of bridges? The best way to deal with this is to engage in exposure therapy. In exposure therapy, you are gradually exposed to your feared stimulus. You start with this fear hierarchy, where you list your fears, starting from the least fearful situation to the most fearful situation. For example, if you have a fear of crossing bridges, you might start with the least fearful situation, which is visualizing the bridge in your mind. Once you can expose yourself to this and not have significant anxiety symptoms, then you can go on to the next higher level of fear on your fear hierarchy, which may be crossing a short bridge with a cell phone for reassurance. Then once you can expose yourself to this without significant anxiety symptoms, then you go on to the next higher level of fear, until you are able to cross a long bridge in heavy traffic without a cell phone, your most feared situation.
In summary, the solution to break the negative cycle of specific phobia is exposure therapy. For more information and help on specific phobia, please read my self-help book on anxiety, Anxiety Protocol.