Updated: Oct 14, 2021
My oldest brother once told me, "You can't logic somebody out of a position or belief that they did not logic themselves into." Intuitively, I knew this. I think you know this. We encounter this each day when we meet with our clients and they offer illogical positions that exacerbate the problems in their lives. Suffering because you haven't been out of your room in a week because of your major depression? Get out of your room and into your own life. In an abusive relationship? Probably ought to get out of that. Drinking or using drugs too much that it is causing problems in your own life? STAHP!
Fears are no different.
It is often the case that obsessive thinking patterns are massively illogical. I've heard it hundreds of times throughout my time spend with my obsessive-compulsive clients, "I know it isn't logical, but..." Typically my response is, "I know, but it feels so real." Even though the possibilities of some highly negative and tragic event transpiring are extraordinarily low, the overemphasize of the outcome IF it happened override our logic system. Its the lack of connectivity in the cortico-striato-thalamo-cortical loop (CSTC Loop) that does not allow for utilization of certain decision making and logic processing mechanisms to occur within our cortical structures. What this means is that when presented with a triggering event or stimuli, the system that regulates logical responses disconnects.
In other cases, such as individuals who suffer with phobias, similar processes occur. When presented with their triggering stimuli or event, this results in hypo-connectivity within similar systems in our brain. Take an individual who suffers from intense, pervasive ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes. This individual, whether presented with a picture of any snake or having a snake in the room, their biological reactions in their sympathetic nervous system prepare them from action; whether that be running or fighting. Now take that individual outside of this triggering situations and they would, rightfully so, be able to express that looking at a picture is far less anxiety provoking than being in a room with said snake, regardless of the snakes actual threat to their life. As we would see, in that moment it is quite difficult to logic somebody out of their intense reaction to a triggering stimuli.; and trying to do so is a fool's errand.
Reprogramming the biological response to these situations is by far the gold-standard in approach to help individuals overcome these phobias. We know that by dropping a snake in their lap is going to have them out of your office and cursing your name from then to eternity. Most of our clients aren't going to be Indiana Jones and adapt well in that pit of snakes. Understandably so since your office isn't a movie studio. No, instead we should warm them up to the more difficult tasks by conquering smaller tasks as we go.
When you go to the gym, you don't just start out on your workout. Most people will have a warm up and cool down period to any good workout. This allows for us to not hurt ourselves and give our body time to regroup following an intense, physiologically stressing workout. The same principle can apply to these mental workouts. I would first as, you to plan out our workouts with a little bit of guidance from myself. Take the ophidiophobic individual: We may first want to start out talking about certain types of snakes. We may want to talk about small garter snakes moving our way up to the most dangerous, deadly snake in the whole world. I may even ask them to write and report on their findings about snakes. Following that week's task of torture, we would then look at pictures of snakes in various positions. These positions would be ranked by our sufferer (i.e. slithering away, coiled up, sun bathing on a rock, etc.) and we would describe the nasty little spawn of satan until we felt better and could call them snakes again. Graduating from there to our next task: We may watch videos of various snakes. One video I especially like to use is this one from BuzzFeed (which does a quick and dirty exposure therapy approach).
As you saw in the video, the individuals took small steps until they were holding that GOD FORSAKEN, SLITHERING DEATH BANANA! Sorry, still can't get over how big that thing is...(See video for reference). This may be an example of what the pinnacle of their work may bring us to during our time together.
Following our work with videos, we may, in fact, want to engage in exposures with snakes. I may ask these individuals to visit pet shops and walk through their reptile and snake section. Maybe stop and visit the snakes. We may even want them to place their hand on the glass of their enclosure upping the risk factors, all the while logically understanding that the snake can't get through the glass without the help of Harry Potter.
Of course how far you'd want to push, or your client would like to push treatment varies greatly on the amount of interference in their life. We always want to consider this when working with a number of presenting issues, and phobias are no different. My approach is to look at the area they see these troubles the most, and work towards that. When we get there, we can readjust and see if we'd like to push further. I encourage them to think about overtraining and how this can further reprogram their reactions and make them even more resilient with regards to whatever fear they are conquering. Some have taken me up on that, and many have not; and it's their therapy, so I honor that.
If you or somebody you know is struggling with a phobia, please reach out and let us tell you more about how we can help.