How I Freed Myself From A Crippling Phobia

Written by Kristen Hedges

In ninth grade, I woke up with a phobia hanging heavily on my shoulders. Before, it had only been a fear. A strange, irrational fear that had been chewing at my mind for as long as I could remember. But until that morning, the word "phobia" seemed a bit out of reach.

In first period, I noticed that nearly half of the class was out sick. In second period, the same. I felt my stomach tighten. My heart skipped hard against my ribs. I looked around the room and saw that every surface — from the chipped paint on the walls to the slick plastic of the desks — was covered in germs. I felt my hand climb to my throat. I couldn’t breathe. I called my mother and told her that I needed to come home. She drove out and picked me up, and I spent the rest of the school week tucked away in my room. For fear of actually contracting an illness, I faked one so that I could stay away from the bacteria I saw clinging to the world.

This is the difference between a fear and a phobia. Someone with a phobia generally fears something that’s commonly accepted as frightening or unpleasant, like wasps, or illness, or confined spaces. When presented with the choice between facing that fear and death, a non-phobic individual would happily take the wasps.

When I suffered from a severe phobia, I would rather die than fall ill.

I knew it was irrational, and I knew it sounded silly. But the fear clung to my shoulders and wrapped cold fingers around my throat day after day. I washed my hands until they were raw. I avoided intimacy, and sucked in my breath anytime someone extended their arms for a hug. Looking back now, I realize that I lost nearly six years of my life to the strange severity of my phobia. Six years fogged away by the constant thought of what if...

Only recently did I kick my phobia for good. One morning, I woke up a hundred pounds lighter. There was nothing hanging from my shoulders. No lingering fear. No tightness in my chest. It wasn’t like flipping a switch, though; unfortunately, shaking free from a phobia (especially a severe one) will take time. But with a few simple lifestyle changes, you can begin walking down a fear-free path. Here's what helped me:

1. Pick up a yoga practice.

The powerful combination of mindfulness and physical stress relief will act as your safe space. More time on the mat means less time drowning in the what ifs and fearful thoughts. Practice for an hour each day, if that’s available to you. If not, be sure to include at least five minutes of mindful breathing (try the 4, 7, 8 breathing technique) in the morning and the evening.

2. Crack open a journal, and turn to it often.

One of the biggest fuels for a phobia is lack of communication with yourself. In order to understand what’s truly going on, you must open yourself up and dig down deep to find the answers. Then, you can do what you need to sort them out. Try journaling on the following questions:

  • How did I come to be this way? What in my past lead me to this fear? For example, when I was a child a member of my family treated every cold and flu I contracted as a terrible inconvenience.
  • Do I know anyone else with this phobia/fear?
  • How has this phobia helped me, and am I trying to gain something from it? For example, my fear and obsession with illness was a cry for attention. I was craving the coddling and care that I missed out on as a child.

3. Find someone to talk to.

Whether it’s a therapist or an understanding friend, find someone who won’t say “Oh, everyone’s afraid of _____.” Keeping your phobia a secret and avoiding communication about it will only lead to more fear. Every time you unzip yourself and allow the love and care of a listener to permeate, you will heal a bit more.

4. Toy with your diet and search for trigger foods.

While phobias are generally caused by a childhood trauma or a deeply ingrained idea, the anxiety that comes coupled with the fear can be exacerbated by an improper diet. Refined sugar, gluten, and MSG are the big names. For me, it took the elimination of all grains to calm my anxious mind. Try going 30 days without processed foods, and 7 days without gluten. Pack your plate with vegetables and gluten-free grains like quinoa and millet.

Freeing yourself from a phobia takes time. You must peel the icy fingers from your neck one by one. But I promise — you’re not broken. You can heal.

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