If someone you know is struggling with a phobia, you may be wondering what you can do to help them. Perhaps your child is suffering from an intense fear of the dark or a friend at work is having trouble with a fear of public speaking. How can you help someone with a phobia? Having a supportive friend or family member alongside them can make a huge difference for someone with a phobia. And, acting as a helper to assist with the practical details of going through exposure treatment can make the whole process much easier.
There are a couple of things you can do to directly support your friend in overcoming their phobia, and a few things you should avoid. Here’s a handy guide to how you can help someone with a phobia.
Don’t Encourage Them to Avoid what they Fear
It might seem like a pretty obvious solution – if you’re afraid of something, just stay away from it. And avoiding the source of your fear on a daily basis can give you some short-term relief from your fear and help make your day-to-day life less stressful.
But here’s the thing. Avoiding your feared situation means that you will never get the chance to learn that it is not scary. If you avoid public speaking all your life, you will never get better at it. A child who sleeps with the lights on never learns that the dark poses no threat.
Encouraging your friend to simply stay away from the things they fear, or planning ways you can include them without exposing them to their fears may seem like being a considerate friend but can actually end up hindering their progress. Avoidance can also be more subtle. Telling someone “don’t think about it right now” or “try not to dwell on your fear” can teach them to try and block out their feelings, which is always a bad idea that goes completely against the aims of treatment.
Gently Correct Their Way of Thinking
People with phobias will often have a lot of beliefs, expectations and thought process around their fears, many of which will be exaggerated or not grounded in reality. These will include things like:
- As soon as I see a snake, I will pass out from fear.
- The bird will attack me as soon as I step outside.
- If I am bitten by a spider, I will die instantly.
- The needle will get stuck in my arm and I’ll get infected.
- There is a 90% chance the plane will crash.
- If I step onto the 13th floor of the tower, something terrible will happen.
Your friend may express these views to you as part of normal conversation, or when asked about their fear. You can really help them by challenging them when you think they are saying something irrational or incorrect. Simple suggestions or questions can get them thinking about the assumptions they hold and start to form more realistic views.
These are the kinds of questions you can use to get your phobic friend to realign their thoughts with reality:
- Have you ever been near a snake before without passing out?
- Do you think other people go outside without having birds attack them?
- How likely is it that the needle will get stuck, when you think about the number of people who have injections every day without any trouble?
- Do 90% of all flights end in crashes? Would air travel even be allowed if there was such a high risk?
- What is different about the 13th floor that will cause bad things to happen?
Another thing you can do is educate them about how things really are, or correct them when they say something that is flat out wrong. If your friend believes that all spider bites are fatal, you could try telling them about all the types of spider which do not bite at all, or the ones whose bites are painful but not in any way lethal. Challenging and correcting phobic thinking is a huge step towards overcoming phobias altogether.
Be a Good Friend
People with phobias often feel all kinds of damaging emotions as a result of their fears. They may be ashamed of their fears, or believe they are weak for having them, or nervous that other people will laugh at them if they find out. They may also suffer from low self-esteem as a result of all these thoughts.
Simply being a good friend and making it obvious that you enjoy spending time with someone in spite of their phobia can do a world of good. Showing friendship and compassion to your friend will help them be compassionate towards themselves, which is a mindset that will help with much more than just treating their phobia.
Want to know if your loved ones have a phobia? Check out the phobia assessment today!